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Cuba hopes if it builds new hotels, tourists will come, after a long COVID shutdown

The Grand Aston la Habana, overlooking the Malecón and the sea, is the latest luxury hotel to open as part of the Cuban government's aggressive tourism building project.
Carrie Kahn
/
NPR
The Grand Aston la Habana, overlooking the Malecón and the sea, is the latest luxury hotel to open as part of the Cuban government's aggressive tourism building project.

Updated May 24, 2022 at 11:44 AM ET

HAVANA, Cuba — Cuba is hoping more tourists return to the island, after a lengthy shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tourism is vital to the communist country's economy, which has taken a beating from not only the pandemic, but also tough sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

The war in Ukraine has also had an impact, as Western governments gradually closed the airspace to Russia. That makes travel for Russians — one of Cuba's top tourist groups — difficult and very expensive.

Last week, the Biden administration rolled back some restrictions on Cuba travel. But it's unclear if U.S. visitors will return.

Michel Cleray is with a small group of fellow French tourists visiting the island. He says they're enjoying the sights, especially the long line of classic cars along the grand Paseo del Prado boulevard in Old Havana.

For the local taxi drivers, though, it's been a dismal day. Eduardo Cedeño, a 36-year-old driver, says he hasn't had a single rider in his shiny red 1956 Buick convertible. "It is the low season for sure, but even the cooler winter months weren't so great," he says.

The iconic Malecón stretches along Havana's shoreline, with waves often crashing over it. The promenade, usually bustling with visitors and residents, awaits the return of more tourists.
Carrie Kahn / NPR
/
NPR
The iconic Malecón stretches along Havana's shoreline, with waves often crashing over it. The promenade, usually bustling with visitors and residents, awaits the return of more tourists.

There is a trickle of tourists heading back to Havana, but nothing like the more than 4 million a year before the pandemic. Analysts say Cuba missed out on a recuperating Caribbean market by waiting until late November to reopen its border and drop strict coronavirus requirements.

Pilar Álvarez Azze, from the Tourism Ministry, tells NPR that officials are optimistic travelers will return to the island. She says the ministry is hoping to lure at least 2.5 million visitors this year. Fewer than half a million have come so far this year though. In addition to Russians, Canadians, U.S. citizens and Europeans are the leading visitors.

For many ordinary citizens in this state-controlled economy, the tourism is the main way to make money — whether by lodging foreign guests in their homes or staffing hotels and other businesses catering to international visitors.

Experiencing one of its worst economic crises in decades, Cuba needs the cash. It can't buy essential imports, including most food and fuel oil, without foreign currency. Inflation has skyrocketed and Cubans spend hours every day waiting in lines for food and gas.

Yet the government continued its aggressive hotel building spree even through the pandemic. A stroll along the Malecón seaside promenade takes you past one recently opened luxury hotel, the Grand Aston la Habana. It is stunning, with two tall white towers and hundreds of rooms looking out onto the ocean. There's just one problem. It's practically empty.

Classic 1950s-era cars sit idling on Havana's Paseo del Prado. On a recent day, driver Eduardo Cedeño said he hadn't had a single rider in his shiny red 1956 Buick convertible.
Carrie Kahn / NPR
/
NPR
Classic 1950s-era cars sit idling on Havana's Paseo del Prado. On a recent day, driver Eduardo Cedeño said he hadn't had a single rider in his shiny red 1956 Buick convertible.

Álvarez defends the controversial construction as necessary for Cuba's long-term well-being. "We keep on building the future, and the future is for our people," she says.

Not all of the Grand Aston's neighbors would agree. "That's where the princes live," says 52-year-old Elias Despine Rodríguez, pointing at the hotel. "Here's where the beggars reside," he says, pointing to his crumbling apartment across the street. "We thought that when they built the hotel, they'd fix our building too, but they didn't." Growing inequality has spurred resentment and sparked rare protests that erupted last July.

Despine stands next to his 1947 classic Harley Davidson motorcycle with a for sale sign on it. He can't even afford the gas for it. He says he can't find work and has given up hope that even if tourists do come back, the economy would improve for him.

So, like large numbers of Cubans today, he's trying to get enough cash to leave.

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