Cuba’s not ready for prime-time tourism
Feb. 1, 2015 7:00 AM
by Rick Jervis, USA TODAY
HAVANA – It’s no big deal to arrive in in this Caribbean city without a
toothbrush, sunscreen or guidebook.
Just don’t come without a hotel reservation.
I arrived in Havana not long ago to cover the U.S. State Department
meetings here without a hotel reservation, figuring I’d find something
in town. My Cuban visa didn’t come through until the day before I
departed from the USA, so I left thinking I’d find a room when I got there.
After arriving at José Marti International Airport, I watched in awe
and dismay as a very nice lady at the airport’s tourist desk called what
appeared to be every hotel in Havana. All sold out. She told me she knew
someone who rents out rooms in her house. I took it, the thought of
sharing a bedroom in someone’s home being only marginally better than
the prospect of sleeping on a park bench in Havana.
In the wake of President Obama’s announcement last month that his
administration was renewing ties with Cuba and easing trade and travel
restrictions to the island, there’s been a lot of buzz about Americans
But is Cuba ready for a large-scale influx of new visitors? Even without
hordes of American visitors, Havana hotels already run at 80% capacity
during the high season (which is now), according to John Kavulich,
senior adviser to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. If U.S.
cruise ships dock at the Port of Havana, there won’t be enough Cuban
taxis and restaurants to accommodate the throngs of new visitors, he said.
New U.S. regulations could pave the way for more U.S.-Cuba ventures,
including hotels and other tourism infrastructure. But don’t count on
those anytime soon, Kavulich says.
“The Cuban government has to want it,” he says. “They have not indicated
they are excited about U.S. property developers, U.S. unions and U.S.
hotel management companies assaulting the Cuban archipelago.”
For now, it’s up to the Cubans.
I was driven to the house where I’d be staying in the leafy Kohly
district of Havana, next to the incredibly lush Havana Forest and a
short drive to downtown. The three-story home belonged to a very nice
widow in her 50s named Tania Galeano, who lived there with her grown son
and daughter. My room was on the top floor. The shower was a trickle,
and I was awakened early each morning – ready or not – by a boisterous
rooster who appeared to be directly outside my window. The house also
had no Internet, so I needed to walk down the street to Hotel El Bosque
to check e-mail and file my stories.
It was less than ideal for a working journalist to be so effectively cut
off from the rest of the world. But it also offered an interesting
opportunity to chat and interact with a Cuban family. Over small cups of
strong Cuban coffee, Galeano told me how she had waited a long time for
Cuba and the U.S. to restore ties. She cried in December when she heard
the announcement on state TV.
Getting around town was also a challenge. Sometimes, Galeano’s son,
Onyx, would drive me in his 1980 Russian-built Lada, which would stall
at every other stoplight. Other times, I would walk down to El Bosque
and hope to grab a taxi there. When there were no taxis around, which
was often, I would stick my arm out on a busy street and flag down a
passing motorist, who would take me to my destination for a few bucks.
Once, I managed to pull a ride with the owner of a pristine,
pink-and-white 1956 Chevy. Sometimes you just get lucky.
For all its rough edges, Havana remains a fascinating place. Its people
are generally friendly and skilled in the art of getting things done â??
resolviendo, they call it — when life presents obstacles.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the city’s tourist numbers
suddenly double. Make sure to book your hotel well in advance.
If not, just call Tania. She’ll take care of you.
Jervis is an Austin-based correspondent for USA TODAY.
Source: Voices: Cuba’s not ready for prime-time tourism | Pacific Daily
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