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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.

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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