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Cubans Hope, And Wait, For Flood Of U.S. Tourists

Tourists ride along Havana's Malecon in April 2009. A push is under way in Congress to do away with bans on U.S. travel to Cuba.
Javier Galeano
/
AP
Tourists ride along Havana's Malecon in April 2009. A push is under way in Congress to do away with bans on U.S. travel to Cuba.

Cuba is the only country the U.S. government restricts Americans from visiting. A new bill in Congress is trying to change that. Opponents to the legislation say U.S. tourism dollars would help the Castro government hold on even longer.

But many ordinary Cubans and dissidents, too, say that's not a reason to keep the nearly 50-year-old travel ban in place.

Tourism industry analysts say 1 million Americans could come to Cuba in the first year after travel restrictions are lifted, and even more after that.

They won't all fit in the hotels and beach resorts owned by the Cuban government. Many would end up at places such as Alonso Miranda's apartment in Havana. Miranda charges visitors $45 a night for a private room with a private bathroom, a shower with hot water, a king-sized bed and a view to match.

Dancers perform during the annual Caribbean festival in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, in July. Observers in Cuba say American tourists to the long-forbidden island would like to be drawn to cultural events such as this one.
Javier Galeano
/
AP
Dancers perform during the annual Caribbean festival in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, in July. Observers in Cuba say American tourists to the long-forbidden island would like to be drawn to cultural events such as this one.

Miranda is one of many entrepreneurs in Havana with a casa particular, the Cuban version of a bed and breakfast. Miranda pays several hundred dollars a month for a license, so both he and the Cuban government would benefit from a sudden wave of Americans.

"We can say the Americans are very nice, very good tips, and very nice conversation. We are just 90 miles away from America, so it would be very easy for them to come to Cuba," Miranda says.

Cuba already gets more than 2 million tourists a year, mainly Europeans and Canadians who buy cheap tour packages from the Cuban government. Most of the tourists would rather lie on the beach than bother with spreading democratic values.

But travel writer Conner Gorry thinks Americans would be different. She lives in Havana and has written about Cuba for the Lonely Planet travel guide.

"Initially, I don't think American tourists will be coming to go to the all-inclusive beaches. They'll be coming for a kind of anthropological tourism to see what Cuba's about, what Cubans are really about," Gorry says.

Since the island has been virtually off-limits for half a century, Americans may be more interested in going to Cuban cities and seeing how ordinary people live. Gorry says it's not true that Cubans and tourists are kept apart.

"People do have this perception that there's some kind of restriction between tourists and Cubans interacting. Anyone who has been to Cuba, just walking along the street, it's more the reverse. You can't get a moment alone because people are coming up to you all the time and trying to engage you in conversation. They're in your face, they want to party, they've got a bottle of rum, they want to come up and talk to you," she says.

Cuba's human rights record and its persecution of dissidents has become a main argument for keeping travel restrictions in place. But Cuba's most prominent dissidents don't think the restrictions are a good idea, either.

Martha Beatriz Roque is one of the Castro government's fiercest critics. She lives in a crowded Havana apartment building with a sign that says "change" on her front door. Beatriz Roque said she doesn't believe American tourism would help bring about that change, or help ordinary Cubans much. But the travel ban sets the wrong example, she said.

"I'm against anything that restricts the freedom of anyone in the world, especially in a country that's a model for democracy like the United States," Beatriz Roque said. "But I don't think American tourists will help Cuba at all."

In a new market hall in Old Havana that looks out onto the harbor, hundreds of private vendors sell handcrafts, paintings and homemade musical instruments. They rent their stalls from the state, and they keep the profits.

Michel Perez sells handmade domino sets and wood carvings for about $5. He has been practicing his English, hoping the Americans show up someday soon.

"It will be helpful for the American tourists, and for us. The commercial relationships will open to both markets, and it is going to be better for the American people and for Cuban people, too," Perez says.

From Perez's stall, the port where one day American tourists may be able to walk off cruise ships and into the heart of Old Havana is visible. But for now, the port terminals are all empty.

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