Surge of Americans tests limits of Cuba’s tourism industry

HAVANA — Cuba‘s tourism industry is under unprecedented strain and struggling to meet demand with record numbers of visitors arriving a year after detente with the United States renewed interest in the Caribbean island.

Its tropical weather, rich musical traditions, famed cigars and classic cars were for decades off limits to most Americans under Cold War-era sanctions, but those restrictions are fading.

Once a rare sight, Americans are now swarming Old Havana’s colonial squares and narrow streets along with Europeans and Canadians.

Entrepreneurs and hustlers have responded by upping prices on taxi rides, meals, and trinkets. Cuban women who pose for pictures in colorful dresses and headwraps while chomping cigars are now charging $5 instead of $1.

Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.

Industry experts worry the island will be unable to absorb an even greater expected surge when scheduled U.S. commercial airline and ferry services are due to start this year.

As it is, foreigners face extreme difficulties booking hotels and rental cars, and those who hoped to discover Cuba before the hordes arrive realize they are too late.

Cuba is over the top with tourists right now. I’ve seen so many Americans, it’s not even funny,” said Ana Fernandez, 44, of Nashville, Tenn.

Gisela Hoiman, 46, a schoolbook editor from Berlin, hoped to see Cuba “before it changes” but was disappointed to find long airport lines, ubiquitous hucksters and masses of tourists. She was stranded in Havana when she was unable to get a spot on the bus leaving for the eastern city of Santiago.

“It was too much to handle, too many other tourists. We stood in line and were sent back and forth to different counters,” she said from an Old Havana cafe with her large backpack parked on the floor. “I don’t think Cuba is prepared.”

The United States and Cuba agreed in December 2014 to end five decades of animosity and have since restored diplomatic ties, igniting international buzz about Cuba.

The opening has benefited Cuba‘s small private sector, which offers restaurants and rooms for rent in family homes.

But the tourism infrastructure, with just 63,000 hotel rooms nationwide, is still largely a function of the state and has languished under decades of U.S. economic sanctions and underdevelopment.

“From offloading at the airport to restaurant availability, infrastructure is maxed out,” said Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes tours for legally permitted travel for Americans.

A select number of foreign-run hotels, such as those of Spain’s Melia Hotels International SA, fill up fast, leaving many visitors with little option but tired state-run motels or rooms in private homes.

Some have been priced out or bumped from hotels, especially in Havana, where high-end U.S. groups reserve blocks months in advance and pay higher prices.

“It is kind of a slap in the face as it has been the Canadian and European tourists who have helped keep the Cuban economy afloat for the past 25 years,” said Keri Montgomery, owner of Vancouver-based Finisterra travel.

The government is seeking more foreign investment and has plans to reach 85,000 hotel rooms nationwide by 2020, but the pace is slow and development has mostly favored beach destinations rather than Cuba‘s cultural centers.

Cuban officials did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

American tourism is still banned under the U.S. trade embargo but U.S. citizens and residents are allowed to visit under 12 categories including for religious, sporting and educational exchanges.

In one of his first moves after rapprochement, Obama made it easier for those 12 categories of travelers to go to Cuba.

The increased presence of Americans is especially noticeable in Havana, and because there has been little enforcement of the tourism ban, some are also enjoying Cuba‘s beaches and bars with little effort to disguise their intentions.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has not fined any Americans for visiting Cuba since Obama took office in January 2009, its database shows.

Under President George W. Bush, OFAC fined hundreds of individuals for embargo violations, mostly for travel. More than 800 people received penalties including nearly $1.1 million in fines in 2004 and 2005 alone, according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service.

California native Tony Pandola, 33, who has been leading Americans around Cuba for three years, said once-intimate experiences are now plagued by crowds.

“On this really beautiful, quiet farm there were six giant tour buses with their diesel engines running and a couple of minivans and taxis all waiting to have the same experience with the tobacco farmer,” he said from Viñales, a picturesque valley west of Havana.

While many budget travelers can usually find accommodations even without booking, some are left stranded.

“I talked to a cab driver in Viñales who said they were offering tourists to sleep in the back of their car for $10,” Pandola said.

Leonardo Diaz, 34, who has been working in tourism in his hometown of Viñales since he was a teen, said every room was booked in December.

“A lot of tourists have stayed in the park. That had never been seen before,” he said.

Havana’s international airport lacks sufficient infrastructure such as luggage trucks and passenger stairs to handle the influx, causing bottlenecks.

“It’s total madness,” said Roniel Hernandez, who works at the terminal receiving U.S. flights. “The airport employees are doing everything possible to satisfy visitors, but the equipment is very old and needs to be replaced.”

Retired teacher Joanna Sarff finally came to Cuba after dreaming about it for 50 years, so she refused to let the inconveniences spoil her trip, saying she was more focused on plans to dance on the tables at a Buena Vista Social Club concert than the crowds.

“For me, this is a great way to experience the culture, the people, the food, the mojitos, and the cigars!”

News Videos
Homeless residents speak about safety
The homeless residents living at the corner of Owens Ave. and Main St. reflect on how they feel about their safety after two homeless men died, one was hit crossing the street and another was beat to death by another homeless man. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
CCSD Superintendent address alleged racially motivated threats at Arbor View
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Jesus F. Jara gives update on alleged racially motivated threats against Arbor View High School, and says such threats will not be tolerated. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Super Bloom Near Lake Elsinore, California
Crowds packed the hills near Lake Elsinore on Saturday to capture a rare selfie amidst the super bloom of poppies turning the landscape purple. The super bloom was caused by the larger rainfall this year. (Todd Prince/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Fiery accident in Las Vegas
A three-car accident on Spring Mountain Road around 6:30 pm on Monday night
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice
A bipartisan coalition holds simultaneous rallies to promote criminal justice. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Stardust implosion anniversary
Twelve years ago today, the Stardust Resort and Casino was imploded. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Lawsuits filed against security contractors at Nevada National Security Site
Two lawsuits were filed today against the current and former government security contractors for the Nevada National Security Site, one on behalf of Jennifer Glover who alleges sexual discrimination and assault and the other on behalf of Gus Redding who alleges retaliation after he gave statements supporting Glover’s claims. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New housing option helps Las Vegas moms keep kids while kicking drugs
WestCare Nevada Women and Children’s Campus in Las Vegas has added a new transitional housing wing for women who have completed the inpatient treatment at the behavioral health nonprofit to help them as they go through outpatient treatment, shore up their finances and prepare to secure long-term housing. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Teenager in critical condition after being struck by an SUV in Henderson
Authorities were called about 2:45 p.m. to the scene in the 2100 block of Olympic Avenue, near Green Valley Parkway and Sunset Road. The teenager was taken to University Medical Center in critical condition. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Water Question Part 3: Conservation loves a crisis
Future growth in the Las Vegas Valley will rest almost entirely on the community’s ability to conserve its finite share of the Colorado River.
The Water Question Part 7: How much can we grow?
Many experts agree that Southern Nevada can continue to grow, so long as residents are willing to do what needs to be done to stretch our crucial resource as far as it will go.
The Water Question Part 6: How many people can Southern Nevada’s water sustain?
The number can swing wildly depending on a host of variables, including the community’s rates of growth, conservation efforts and the severity of drought on the Colorado River.
Mylar Balloon Demo
NV Energy presented a demonstration Wednesday to depict the damage that can be caused by the release of Mylar balloons.
Educators dressed in red have taken to the streets to demand more for their students.
Educators dressed in red have taken to the streets to demand more for their students. Educators from around the State are bringing the Red for Ed movement to the steps of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, NV, and to the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Nature Conservancy Ranch
The Nature Conservancy just bought the 900-acre 7J Ranch at the headwaters of the Amargosa River, north of Beatty. The property could become a research station, though ranching will continue.
Swift water rescue at Durango Wash in Las Vegas
On Thursday, February 14, 2019, at approximately 8:42 a.m., the Clark County Fire Department responded to a report of a swift water incident where people were trapped in the Durango wash which is located near 8771 Halcon Ave. Personnel found one person who was trapped in the flood channel. The individual was transported to the hospital in stable condition. Video by Clark County Fire & Rescue.
Flooding at E Cheyenne in N. Las Vegas Blvd.
Quick Weather Around the Strip
Rain hits Las Vegas, but that doesn't stop people from heading out to the Strip. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries
Aaron Semas, professional bull rider, talks about his traumatic brain injuries. The Cleveland Clinic will begin researching the brains of retired bull riders to understand the impact traumatic brain injuries have on cognition. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Matt Stutzman shoots arrows with his feet
Matt Stutzman who was born without arms shoots arrows with his feet and hits the bullseye with remarkable accuracy. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Secretary of Air Force Emphasizes the Importance of Nellis AFB
US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visited Nellis Air Force Base during Red Flag training and described how important the base is to the military.
Former Northwest Academy student speaks out
Tanner Reynolds, 13, with his mother Angela McDonald, speaks out on his experience as a former student of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff member Caleb Michael Hill. Hill, 29, was arrested Jan. 29 by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office on suspicion of child abuse.
Former Northwest Academy students speak out
Tristan Groom, 15, and his brother Jade Gaastra, 23, speak out on their experiences as former students of Northwest Academy in Amargosa Valley, which includes abuse by staff and excessive medication.
Disruption At Metro PD OIS Presser
A man claiming to be part of the press refused to leave a press conference at Metro police headquarters, Wednesday January 30, 2019. Officers were forced to physically remove the man. (Mat Luschek/Review-Journal)
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience
Clients at Las Vegas’ Homeless Courtyard talk about their experience after the city began operating around the clock. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Las Vegas parts ways with operator of homeless courtyard
Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher discusses the transition between operators of the homeless courtyard in Las Vegas, Thursday Jan. 24, 2019.(Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas police and Raiders partner with SafeNest
Las Vegas police and the Raiders partner with SafeNest on Project Safe 417 (the police code for domestic violence is 417). The program partners trained SafeNest volunteer advocates with Metropolitan Police Department officers dispatched to domestic violence calls, allowing advocates to provide immediate crisis advocacy to victims at the scene of those calls. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
North Las Vegas police chief discusses officer-involved shooting
North Las Vegas police chief Pamela Ojeda held a press conference Thursday, Jan. 24, regarding an officer-involved shooting that took place on Jan. 21. The incident resulted in the killing of suspect Horacio Ruiz-Rodriguez. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Volunteers gather for annual Clark County homeless count
Volunteers gather for the annual Southern Nevada Homeless Census, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Who can understand hospital price lists?
Lists of costs for procedures, drugs and devices are now posted the websites of hospitals to comply with a new federal rule designed to provide additional consumer transparency. Good luck figuring out what they mean.
Life Videos
MAGIC fashion convention showcases men's clothing trends
The MAGIC fashion convention has come to Las Vegas at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center to showcase some of the hottest clothing trends for men. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Army medic’s Afghanistan story told in new book
The graphic novel “Machete Squad” is based on journals written by Las Vegan Brent Dulak.
Las Vegas man talks about losing his wife
Dwayne Murray, 37, lost his wife, LaQuinta while she was at Centennial Hills Hospital. A jury awarded him $43 million last week after it said the hospital failed to perform the standard of care in administering a drug for her sickle cell disease.
Barber sets up shop in grandfather’s old shop
Andres Dominguez’s new barber shop is filled with memories of his grandfather, who ran the El Cortez landmark for more than 30 years. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Life and times of a 90-year-old horse player
Leo Polito of Las Vegas describes meeting legendary jockey and trainer Johnny Longden on the beach at Del Mar. Mike Brunker/Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Learning the history of singing bowls
Presentation at Summerlin Library teaches residents about the history of singing bowls (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learning live-saving techniques in Stop the Bleed class
Leslie Shaffer, an AMR paramedic, shows how to control bleeding during a Stop the Bleed course at the Summerlin Library. The class is designed to teach anyone how to control and stop life-threatening bleeding. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vicki Richardson speaks about on the power of art
Artist and arts advocate Vicki Richardson talks about the power of art to inspire and challenge. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DressCoders pairs tech with haute couture
DressCoders is a startup focused on haute couture garments. The company uses illuminated thread that is washable and can be sewn right into the fabric. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CES 2019: Brava infrared oven
In cooking with the Brava infrared oven,there’s no preheating. the bulbs can reach 500 degrees in less than a second. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sinks Merge Style And Utility
Study could determine cause of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases
Dr. Aaron Ritter, director of clinical trials at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, discusses his research on how inflammation in the brain impacts Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. (Jessie Bekker/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Holocaust survivors talk about tragedy and friendship
Janos Strauss and Alexander Kuechel share their perspectives on life. (John Przybys/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
'Siegel Cares' Santa delivers toys to kids at Siegel Suites in Las Vegas
Siegel Cares, the charitable wing of The Siegel Group, delivered toys to families at their apartment complexes in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Revisiting “Christ the King” sculpture
A longtime admirer of the sculpture at Christ the King Catholic Community in Las Vegas shares her perspective. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye)
TOP NEWS
Home Front Page Footer Listing