Cuba looks to further bolster vital tourism sector

Varadero, Cuba, May 9 (EFE).- Cash-strapped Cuba is looking to further boost its long-vital tourism sector, the crown jewel of which is this famed resort town located 138 kilometers (85 miles) east of Havana.

A billboard along the palm tree-lined road leading to this peninsula of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, which receives 44 percent of the tourists who travel to the communist-ruled island, expresses its economic importance: "Everything raised here goes to the people."

Varadero caters to international tourists with its dozens of luxury hotels, which are state-owned but managed in joint-venture partnerships by international groups, most of which are Spanish.

Cuba's tourism sector welcomed 2.8 million foreign visitors in 2012 - 4.5 percent more than the previous year - and expects that number to increase to 3 million in 2013.

Tourism revenues are crucial for Cuba and strengthening the sector is a priority of the island's authorities, who have expanded the scope for private initiative and made it easier for visitors to obtain a visa.

Cuba also wants to diversify its tourist offering "in accordance with the times we're living in," Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said during this week's 33rd International Tourism Fair in Varadero.

That effort has included a project to renovate the heart of Havana's historic downtown.

The memory of Ernest Hemingway lives on in the now-restored Ambos Mundos hotel, where the American author wrote some of his most enduring works in the 1930s. That establishment is also located near the La Bodeguita del Medio and Floridita bars that Hemingway frequented.

Sloppy Joe's Bar, one of Havana's most popular drinking spots in the 1920s, also has been restored to its original decor and ambience.

Privately owned restaurants, known locally as paladars, also are in vogue.

Tourists especially flock to the elegant La Guarida, which was a set for the hit 1994 film "Fresa y Chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate) and is located in an old, unrestored building that retains the dilapidated look it had at the turn of the 20th century.