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Varadero playa

The United States and Cuba have been separated for 50 years. For most of that time, Americans have been prohibited by their own laws from traveling to Cuba under a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

But that may change. Legislation to free travel by Americans to Cuba is pending in the U.S. Congress, and backers expect it could be approved in what they see as a developing thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama.

If this law is approved probably hundreds of American people will visit Cuba by yachts or plains, as tourists.

Cuba's government and people have been anticipating this moment for a long time, but the readiness for an onslaught of American visitors isn't quite sure.

The doubts focus on the capacity and quality of Cuba's tourist infrastructure.

Developments such as the Varadero marina, and other big golf and leisure projects, are being built with the American 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 United States must be 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 International Monetary Fund 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 receive in the early years because it does not have enough facilities for more, such as hotel capacity.

Cuba has received 2.3 million visitors and $2.5 billion in revenues in 2008. Government statistics shows that the island had about 55,000 hotel rooms in 2007, the last year for which numbers 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 facilities.

Before 1959 american tourists came in boats and planes, and ferries carried them back and forth across the Straits of Florida from Key West. They filled up Havana hotels like the Plaza and the Inglaterra and hung out at Sloppy Joe's bar or the Tropicana night club.

Because of its proximity, travel experts say it is inevitable the United States will one day dominate Cuba tourism again. Within 10 years, said one industry source, perhaps 70 percent of the island's visitors will be American or Canadian.


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