Behind the mangroves that skirt the blue waters of Cuba’s Bay of Cardenas, a 1,500-slip marina is taking shape as the island’s tourism industry braces for what could be its biggest challenge yet.
The Americans are coming — or they may be, soon.
Rock jetties jut out into the bay and beyond them a plot of land the size of several football fields is taking shape, reclaimed from the water as part of a big new marina project at Varadero, a beach resort 130km east of Havana.
“The Americans will come here in their yachts and they’ll put them in the marina,” said a security guard, gesturing to the earth-moving and sand-dredging behind the mangroves.
For most of the time since former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Americans have been prohibited by their own laws from traveling to the Caribbean island under a 47-year-old US trade embargo.
But that may change. Legislation to free travel by Americans to Cuba is pending in the US Congress, and backers expect it could be approved in what they see as a developing thaw in US-Cuba relations under US President Barack Obama.
“If the travel ban is lifted, you’ll probably see hundreds, hundreds of American yachtsmen going to Cuba the next day,” said Timothy Ashby, a former US Commerce Department official who studies Cuban commercial issues.
Cuba’s government and people have been anticipating this moment for a long time, but questions about their readiness for an onslaught of visitors are being raised.
The doubts focus on the capacity and quality of Cuba’s tourist infrastructure, but also on possible political effects on an island that has resisted US influence for 50 years.
After years of animosity with the US, Cuban leaders do not like to say that developments such as the Varadero marina, and other big golf and leisure projects, are being built with the US market in mind.
The official line is that Cuba is preparing for visitors from the whole world and if that includes Americans, so be it.
But the US is the natural market for Cuba, whose economy is reeling from the damage inflicted by three hurricanes last year and the ongoing global financial crisis.
A study for the IMF estimated that as many as 3.5 million Americans could visit Cuba annually if the travel ban was lifted.
But travel experts say 500,000 is a more likely maximum the Cuban government would allow in the early years because it does not have enough facilities for more.
“Cuba is ready to absorb another half million visitors a year, but not another million, just because of hotel capacity,” said a foreign businessman in Cuba’s travel industry.
“I’m sure they will try to control as much as they can in order to avoid a boom that nobody can control. Every country in the world would try to do the same,” he said.
One of Cuba’s biggest sources of cash in recent years has been foreign tourism, which brought in US$2.5 billion in revenues last year.
Government statistics show Cuba had about 55,000 hotel rooms in 2007, the last year for which figures are available. At least 10,000 more are under construction, and others are on the drawing boards.
Experts say Cuba will need more four and five-star hotels for Americans, but also more and better restaurants, shops, rental cars and other tourist amenities.
Before Castro took power on Jan. 1, 1959, in a guerrilla uprising, Cuba was a US playground where Americans swilled booze during Prohibition and gambled and partied the night away in Mafia-built casinos and nightclubs in the 1950s.