At Cuban resorts, the end of tourism apartheid

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.

But most staffers said the integration of Cuban and foreign tourists was going smoothly, and that they are thrilled to finally be serving their compatriots. Certain European guests don’t have a reputation for tipping well, but several resort staffers said their fellow Cubans were generous with gratuities. “We learned that from Americans,” one Cuban hotel employee said.

The presence of so many local vacationers is also a sign that while many here struggle to make ends meet, a growing number of Cubans have money to spend. The island’s socialist system provides free health care and education, as well as subsidized housing, utilities and other basic necessities, so Cubans with access to hard currency often have disposable income to spare. Some may be employees of foreign companies, or private farmers benefiting from recent land reforms. Others are small-time entrepreneurs, or those prospering in the country’s huge black market economy.

Then there are Cubans who receive support from family members abroad. In the past, Cubans living abroad who returned to the island couldn’t invite their families to stay with them at resorts, so Varadero has become a popular site for family reunions.

“This is a lot easier and more comfortable,” said Masiel Jorda, staying at the Palma Real resort with her husband, daughter, and mother, who was visiting from the U.S. “In the past, we would come from Havana, but just for the day. Now we can stay longer, and it’s more comfortable for everyone,” she said.

Still, there were other Cubans — including those living abroad as well as Cubans on the island— who’d finally entered the idyllic world of Varadero’s resorts, only to find it a bit alienating. As with popular Caribbean destinations in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, their hotels were a world away from the poverty beyond the beach. And that put a shadow on the experience for some.

“Only an elite group of Cubans have access to this,” said one Havana resident who requested his name withheld because he works for a state-run cultural institution. “Most people in this country can’t even dream about coming here.”

Of course, the inequalities laid bare by the opening of Cuba’s resorts are likely to grow if the country’s communist authorities ease their grip on other economic activities. But after 50 years of socialist rule, even the government’s harshest critics seem to have a hard time enjoying something that remains out of reach for so many others.

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