January 26, 2016 / 6:01 AM / 3 years ago

Surge of Americans tests limits of Cuba's tourism industry

By Jaime Hamre
    HAVANA, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Cuba's tourism industry is under
unprecedented strain and struggling to meet demand with record
numbers of visitors arriving a year after detente with the
United States renewed interest in the Caribbean island. 
    Its tropical weather, rich musical traditions, famed cigars 
and classic cars were for decades off limits to most Americans
under Cold War-era sanctions, but those restrictions are fading.
    Once a rare sight, Americans are now swarming Old Havana's
colonial squares and narrow streets along with Europeans and
    Entrepreneurs and hustlers have responded by upping prices
on taxi rides, meals, and trinkets. Cuban women who pose for
pictures in colorful dresses and headwraps while chomping cigars
are now charging $5 instead of $1.
    Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up
17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to
161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.
    Industry experts worry the island will be unable to absorb
an even greater expected surge when scheduled U.S. commercial
airline and ferry services are due to start this year. 
    As it is, foreigners face extreme difficulties booking
hotels and rental cars, and those who hoped to discover Cuba
before the hordes arrive realize they are too late.
    "Cuba is over the top with tourists right now. I've seen so
many Americans, it's not even funny," said Ana Fernandez, 44, of
 Nashville, Tennessee.
    Gisela Hoiman, 46, a schoolbook editor from Berlin, hoped to
see Cuba "before it changes" but was disappointed to find long
airport lines, ubiquitous hucksters and masses of tourists. She
was stranded in Havana when she was unable to get a spot on the 
 bus leaving for the eastern city of Santiago.
    "It was too much to handle, too many other tourists. We
stood in line and were sent back and forth to different
counters," she said from an Old Havana cafe with her large
backpack parked on the floor. "I don't think Cuba is prepared."
    The United States and Cuba agreed in December 2014 to end
five decades of animosity and have since restored diplomatic
ties, igniting international buzz about Cuba.
    The opening has benefited Cuba's small private sector, which
offers restaurants and rooms for rent in family homes. 
    But the tourism infrastructure, with just 63,000 hotel rooms
nationwide, is still largely a function of the state and has
languished under decades of U.S. economic sanctions and
    "From offloading at the airport to restaurant availability,
infrastructure is maxed out," said Collin Laverty, founder of
Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes tours for legally
permitted travel for Americans.
    A select number of foreign-run hotels, such as those of
Spain's Melia Hotels International SA, fill up fast,
leaving many visitors with little option but tired state-run
motels or rooms in private homes.
    Some have been priced out or bumped from hotels, especially
in Havana, where high-end U.S. groups reserve blocks months in
advance and pay higher prices.
    "It is kind of a slap in the face as it has been the
Canadian and European tourists who have helped keep the Cuban
economy afloat for the past 25 years," said Keri Montgomery,
owner of Vancouver-based Finisterra travel. 
    The government is seeking more foreign investment and has
plans to reach 85,000 hotel rooms nationwide by 2020, but the 
pace is slow and development has mostly favored beach
destinations rather than Cuba's cultural centers. 
    Cuban officials did not respond to Reuters requests for
    American tourism is still banned under the U.S. trade
embargo but U.S. citizens and residents are allowed to visit 
under 12 categories including for religious, sporting and
educational exchanges. 
    In one of his first moves after rapprochement, Obama made it
easier for those 12 categories of travelers to go to Cuba.
    The increased presence of Americans is especially noticeable
in Havana, and because there has been little enforcement of the
tourism ban, some are also enjoying Cuba's beaches and bars with
little effort to disguise their intentions.
    The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control
has not fined any Americans for visiting Cuba since Obama took
office in January 2009, its database shows. 
    Under President George W. Bush, OFAC fined hundreds of
individuals for embargo violations, mostly for travel. More than
800 people received penalties including nearly $1.1 million in
fines in 2004 and 2005 alone, according to a 2015 report by the
Congressional Research Service. 
    California native Tony Pandola, 33, who has been leading
Americans around Cuba for three years, said once-intimate
experiences are now plagued by crowds. 
    "On this really beautiful, quiet farm there were six giant
tour buses with their diesel engines running and a couple of
minivans and taxis all waiting to have the same experience with
the tobacco farmer," he said from Viñales, a picturesque valley
west of Havana.
    While many budget travelers can usually find accommodations
even without booking, some are left stranded.
    "I talked to a cab driver in Viñales who said they were
offering tourists to sleep in the back of their car for $10,"
Pandola said.
    Leonardo Diaz, 34, who has been working in tourism in his
hometown of Viñales since he was a teen, said every room was
booked in December.
    "A lot of tourists have stayed in the park. That had never
been seen before," he said.
    Havana's international airport lacks sufficient
infrastructure such as luggage trucks and passenger stairs to
handle the influx, causing bottlenecks. 
    "It's total madness," said Roniel Hernandez, who works at
the terminal receiving U.S. flights. "The airport employees are
doing everything possible to satisfy visitors, but the equipment
is very old and needs to be replaced."    
    Retired teacher Joanna Sarff finally came to Cuba after
dreaming about it for 50 years, so she refused to let the
inconveniences spoil her trip, saying she was more focused on
plans to dance on the tables at a Buena Vista Social Club
concert than the crowds. 
   "For me, this is a great way to experience the culture, the
people, the food, the mojitos, and the cigars!"

 (Reporting by Jaime Hamre; Additional reporting by Nelson
Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Kieran Murray)
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