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At Cuban resorts, the end of tourism apartheid

Cubans can now check in as guests at beach resorts, creating a boom for local tourism.

Cuban and foreign tourists alike mix on the sandy beach and enjoy the turquoise ocean at Varadero resort. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

VARADERO, Cuba — This massive resort complex may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but to legions of European and Canadian vacationers, it is the Cuba of travel brochures: white sand beaches, turquoise waters and all-inclusive discount getaways. With more than 50 hotels and counting, it has grown into one of the largest tourism destinations in the Caribbean.

U.S. travel restrictions have kept Americans out of Varadero’s resorts, and until last year, ordinary Cubans couldn’t stay at them, either. While Cuban workers poured the drinks and fluffed the pillows, a so-called “tourism apartheid” system banned Cubans from checking in as guests. But after Raul Castro officially took over Cuba’s presidency from his older brother last year, he put an end to the widely resented policy, and opened the communist island’s resorts to any Cuban of means.

Given that the average wage on the island is less than $20 a month, the change was largely considered a symbolic one at the time. But this summer, something unusual has been happening up and down the beach at Varadero. The hotels are filling with cash-wielding locals.

Every morning in front of Havana’s stately Capitolio, a caravan of air-conditioned tour buses arrives to pick up Cubans who have purchased discount package deals to Varadero’s all-inclusive resorts. For less than $200 per person, they can get a week-long stay that includes transportation, lodging at a three or four-star resort, and a plastic wristband entitling them to as much food and alcohol as they can consume. In a country accustomed to rationing and other austerity measures, that’s a ticket to fantasyland.

One employee of a state-run tourism company said his agency was sending 400 Cubans to Varadero each day, creating a surge in business during what is ordinarily the low season for international tourism. Many of Varadero’s upper-end facilities are still full of foreigners, but the more affordable resorts have been jammed with Cubans all summer.

“I’m having a great time,” said Erick Llanio, a Havana resident sitting poolside with his family at a resort called Cuatro Palmas. The all-you-can-eat buffets were especially novel to him.

“A lot of foreigners who come here may be used to it, but in my case, it’s the first time,” said Llanio. “So I see things and say ‘What’s that? What’s this? This is tasty!’ Foreigners say they don’t like the food, but I’m like ‘This is great!’”

The sudden arrival of so many Cubans can be a challenge for hotel managers, and there have been some accounts of pilfering from hotel rooms and decimated buffet tables. While foreign tourists tend to prefer reading and lounging quietly in the sun, Cuban beachgoers often like loud music — using their vacation time to party, not to relax.