Cuba: Close, But No Cigar for U.S. Tourists

The country famed for vintage architecture, rum, cigars and '50s cars has a new spin.Cuba and its tourism industry are ramping up with hip hotels, Chinese-made tour buses and restaurants serving trendy international dishes, partly in anticipation of an influx of Americans and their greenbacks.

At the rooftop pool of Havana's Hotel Saratoga, where rates run $200 and up and two-story suites have humidors and marble bathrooms, young Brits order mojitos. On the street below, near crumbling apartment buildings of Old Havana, a boy peers through the hotel restaurant's window and stretches a hand toward patrons nibbling delicacies unavailable to the average rice-and-beans-eating Cuban, miming hunger.

In the 50th anniversary year of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro into power, tourism is the No. 1 moneymaker, while locals might subsist on $20 a month and omnipresent food rationing.

U.S. citizens can't legally travel to Cuba because of a 1962 U.S.-imposed trade embargo with the Communist island 90 miles south of Key West.But the regime favors U.S. tourism, and stateside hotel and cruise execs are quietly scoping out the scene.

Illicit Americans walk the cobbled streets of Old Havana, photograph pastel-colored Spanish Colonial buildings and historic churches, buff up their salsa, puff on mellow cigars and lie on the largest Caribbean island's white-sand beaches.

They slip in via Canada, Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and immigration officers keep them out of trouble back home by not stamping U.S. passports with the taboo "Cuba" imprint.

About 41,000 of last year's 2.3 million visitors were from the USA, including legal Cuban Americans, Cuban officials say. Cuba welcomes U.S. tourists, attracted despite the chance of fines or surrender of passports if caught when re-entering the USA.

Visitors are drawn by Cuba's "unique flavor, sensualism, beautiful people," says Christopher P. Baker, author of Cuba guides, including Moon Cuba.

"In Cuba, everyone is happy, even if they've got nothing," says Havana-bound Liuber Leiva, 33, of Miami, in gold earring and baggy shorts, at the Miami airport. He shows how to get bags shrink-wrapped to thwart theft and negotiate daunting lines of Cuban Americans with stacks of gift-loaded suitcases. They now can visit without restriction.


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