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Cuba’s tourism boom leaves some worrying they’ll be left out

Cuba’s tourism boom leaves some worrying they’ll be left out
Posted 12:11 a.m. today
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

SANTIAGO, CUBA — This 500-year-old city smells of fresh paint and varnish.

Residents stroll along a recently completed harbor promenade under
gleaming new streetlights, enjoying sea breezes while relaxing on newly
installed metal benches.

Missing are the tourists. As foreign visitors flood Havana and a select
group of other colonial cities and beach resorts, Cuba’s second-largest
city is suffering a tourist drought.

Santiago saw less than a tenth of the tourist traffic in Havana last
year and less than a 20th of the visitors to the beach resort of
Varadero even amid large-scale government investment in renovating the
city for its 500th anniversary this summer. Other Cuban cities are
seeing similarly stagnant visitor numbers despite the dramatic surge in
overall tourism set off by the announcement of detente between the U.S.
and Cuba.

That’s raising concerns that a rising tide of tourist dollars will leave
some areas of Cuba booming and others struggling against a backdrop of
broader economic stagnation.

“They’re promoting Havana and the center of the country but they’ve
forgotten about Santiago,” said Gladys Domenech, who rents tourists a
room in her home in the historic center that features a terrace with a
sweeping view of the Caribbean.

The city sits about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of Havana on
highways that narrow outside the capital to horrifically rutted roads
clogged with horse carts, bicyclists and stray cows. The journey by road
can last 15 hours, and far longer in Cuba’s notoriously unreliable and
uncomfortable inter-city buses. Train and domestic plane tickets are
virtually impossible to obtain without waiting hours in lines that may
or may not end in satisfaction. There are only three flights a week from
the U.S.

Cruise ships provide a promising new potential source of visitors,
although dockings here remain relatively rare.

“It’s tough for those who go to Havana and want to come here,” said
Virgen Maria Jerez, owner of an elegant private restaurant near
Domenech’s home in central Santiago. “Transport is vital and we’re
disconnected.”

Those who do reach Santiago find a city rich with history but hampered
by what visitors and residents alike call substandard accommodations,
few high-quality restaurants and a lack of fun things to do at night.
Cuban officials say Santiago has roughly 1,500 of Cuba’s 60,000 hotel
rooms, far fewer than it needs.

Santiago’s promoters lament that tourists are missing out on the city’s
rich Afro-Cuban culture, its meandering streets, colonial architecture
and its prized role as the home of Cuban musical genres such as trova
and son.

What’s more, it has a unique underwater park filled with seven ships
sunk during the Spanish-American War, accessible by small boat or a
scuba dive.

“It’s a treasure that we have to show off,” said Vicente Gonzalez, head
of Santiago’s Center for Cultural and Natural Underwater Heritage.

Along with the new oceanfront malecon and the restoration of homes in
the city’s historic center, the Cuban government has built a new theater
and an artisanal brewpub as part of a broader reconstruction and
improvement effort that began after Hurricane Sandy devastated the city
in 2012.

Another potential draw, particularly for American tourists, is the
memorial to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who fought on the city’s
San Juan Hill in one of the most famous battles of the Spanish-American
War that freed Cuba from Spanish rule.

But virtually every tourist establishment in the city closes at 10 p.m.,
leaving the streets dark and silent.

Last year, Santiago had 297,918 visitor-days, an industry measure of the
number of tourists who arrived in the city multiplied by the number of
days each stayed. That was a 6 percent rise over 2013, but the overall
number remains tiny compared to flow of tourists in Havana, which had
nearly 3 million visitor days, or Varadero with 7.8 million, according
to Jose Luis Perello, a professor of tourism at the University of Havana.

Some advocates of U.S. travel to Cuba says they are optimistic about
Santiago’s future, particularly since American tourists remain barred
from pure tourism and must participate mostly in cultural or educational
activities well-suited to historic sites like Santiago.

“The city and the region have much to offer. It’s just a question of
time before tourism in Santiago starts growing,” said Tom Popper, head
of Insight Cuba, one of the largest operators of U.S. tours to Cuba.

“U.S. tourists can go to any part of the Caribbean for the beaches, but
what they want to see is the Cuba that they haven’t been able to see for
generations.”

___

Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

Source: Cuba’s tourism boom leaves some worrying they’ll be left out ::
WRAL.com –
http://www.wral.com/cuba-s-tourism-boom-leaves-some-worrying-they-ll-be-left-out/14822745/

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