Pinched Cuba Eyes Tourist Dollars

Without Soviet aid, Castro turns to 'pure tourism' to prop up troubled economy

SELLING surf and sun in one of the world's last communist outposts is starting to pay dividends.

Cuba's nascent tourism industry had a banner year in 1991, drawing a projected half million visitors, up about 50 percent over 1990. According to a report in the Cuban newspaper Rebelde Juventud, in the first nine months of 1991 at least 400,000 tourists stayed here. And this does not include the busy season, which begins in December.

"This represents a huge leap in one year," notes Gareth Jenkins, editor of the London-based newsletter Cuba Business. "The growth rate has been only 4 to 5 percent in the last three years."

Without its Soviet benefactor, Cuba is racing to bring in tourist dollars to keep its economy afloat. Some of the joint-venture hotel projects under way with Spain, France, Italy, Jamaica, Austria, and Finland are coming to fruition. New air links have been established with the major markets of Canada and Europe, and with several Caribbean islands to draw visitors in for one- or multiple-day visits. 'Pure tourism'

A Ministry of External Relations official says tourism is second only to feeding the populace as a government priority. If verification were needed, the presence of "El Jefe Maximo," President Fidel Castro Ruz, at the inauguration of the five-star Hotel Melia Veradero on Dec. 14 would seem to provide it.

"Ours is a pure tourism, without gambling, without drugs, without prostitution. And it is not in contradiction to our principles," Mr. Castro said at the opening.

The Hotel Melia is the second of three luxury hotels, a golf course, and commercial center being built here in partnership with the Spanish hotel conglomerate Grupo Sol. Indeed, the four-star Sol Palmeras hotel opened in May 1990 is touted as a development model.

"We are the example of the new philosophy of cooperation between Europe and Cuba," says Julio Fernandez Marquez, the Cuban manager of the development project.

Under a 25-year contract, development costs and profits are split evenly between Grupo Sol and Cubanacan, a tourism development agency. The hotel is run by a half dozen Spanish managers and 330 Cuban employees. And management has the right to demand international standards of service from employees.

"It's work for them," says Grupo Sol sales manager Jordi Alsina. "We have more requirements than Cuban tourism workers are accustomed to."

But the compensation is better too. Sol Palmeras employees make about 80 percent more than Cubans working in state-run hotels. They also get free transportation, meals, and uniforms.

The results are promising. Mr. Alsina claims a 90 percent occupancy rate during the first year. "Out of 146 hotels in the Sol chain, it's the most visited," he says. Canadians make up about 50 percent of the clientele. 'The price is right'

The appeal is mainly financial. A one-week package - including airfare, hotel, and two meals a day - costs between $550 and $700. A two-week package from Europe costs about $1,000.

"The price is right. The night life is not bad. There are a lot of Europeans and the Cubans are very charming," says Mario Michetti Jr., a drummer from Montreal bronzing by the pool. But he adds, "I don't think I'll come back unless there's some changes."

He complains that socializing with locals is forbidden. "I met a Cuban woman and they wouldn't allow her into the restaurant for dinner or even a cup of coffee."

Mr. Michetti also found that due to the shortages, when ordering meat or lobster in Cuba, that's all one gets. "No butter, no side dish, no salad." Alsina says the hotel is working with the Cuban government to grow the kinds of tropical fruits and vegetables tourists expect.

Still, the Sol Palmeras is a far cry from the traditional communist "service" that one finds, for example, in the 30-year-old Habana Libre Hotel. The lobby cafe/bar has one item on the menu, every day: ham & cheese sandwiches. A request to hold the ham is met with the response: "We only have ham and cheese."

Along with its pricing appeal, Cuba is capitalizing on a novelty factor. ve been here three times," says Dutch tourist Bertrand Ingells. "Each time I brought a friend who wanted to see Cuba before Castro fell."

But not all tourism projects are as successful as the Sol Palmeras appears. Another Spanish hotel under construction in Havana, the Cohiba, has been beset with delays. A journalist back from a new five-star hotel in Santiago de Cuba says it was "deserted." And Mr. Jenkins at Cuba Business notes that shortages of consumer goods and quality local crafts are limiting what Cuba could earn from tourism. US embargo a hurdle

Cuba would also love to tap the United States tourism market. By law, US citizens may travel to Cuba.

But the US trade embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962 permits only journalists, academics, or Cuban-Americans visiting relatives to legally spend money here. A small percentage of Cuba's visitors are US tourists who skirt the blockade by traveling through Mexico or Canada. Cuban officials are happy to assist by stamping a separate piece of paper instead of the US passport.

The US embargo can also cause problems for others here. One foreign hotel manager flew to Montreal en route to a vacation with his wife at Walt Disney World in Florida. He waited six hours at the US consulate for a visa. "They threw my passport back to me and said I couldn't have a visa because I worked in Cuba," he recalls bitterly.

Meanwhile, Cubans have their complaints about the tourism boom. Locals call it "apartheid tourism."

"I'm a patriot. I'll defend my country to the death," says Adrienne, a young television technician. "But I don't like one thing: This is the only place in the world where tourists have the right to go into a restaurant or disco but we citizens are excluded."

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