DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:
And Secretary Clinton isn't the only one who's traveling a lot these days. Despite the global recession, a lot of other people are using their passports too. And we're going to take you now to two destinations that you might not have visited. In a moment we'll head to huge peninsula in the Middle East. But first, we're going to Cuba.
Cuba's President Raul Castro threw out the policy last year that banned ordinary Cubans from staying at tourist hotels in their own country. And as a result, there's something new this summer at the island's resorts: Cuban tourists.
Nick Miroff reports.
NICK MIROFF: With 12 miles of white sand beaches and more than 50 hotels, Varadero is one of the largest resorts in the Caribbean. Foreign companies partner with the Cuban government to run the place, and it's a bit like Cancun without the American college kids.
Of course, Varadero is still off-limits to American tourists under U.S. law, and for years it was pretty much that way for Cubans too. They cleaned the hotel rooms and staffed the restaurants, but the island's communist authorities wouldn't let them check in as guests. That policy ended last year, and these days, dozens of tour buses packed with Cuban vacationers are pouring into Varadero each day.
For less than $200 per person, Cubans can buy a one week, all-inclusive package and finally claim their places in the sand, alongside budget-minded Europeans and Canadians.
When Cuban vacationer Lorenzo Yeras arrived at the lobby of Varadero's Cuatro Palmas Resort, he said there hadn't been a single foreigner on his bus from Havana.
Mr. LORENZO YERAS: (Through translator) They were all Cubans and that's something that makes me really happy. Not that I have anything against foreigners, but it's nice to see so many Cubans together, sharing that happiness and excitement.
MIROFF: If the Castro government's old policy was intended to enforce some degree of socialist equality, its removal is the latest sign that a growing number of the island's residents have money to spend. The average worker's monthly salary here is less than $20, but Varadero's resorts are crowded with Cuba's new economic elite: employees of foreign companies, private entrepreneurs, black marketers, and farmers prospering from the country's new land reforms.
Felix Beatoy, an actor, said most of the guests at his all-inclusive resort were Cuban.
Mr. FELIX BEATOY (Actor): (Through translator) You know, this is how it works in the rest of the world. Either you can afford something or you can't. It didn't make sense that a Cuban wasn't allowed to stay in a hotel, even if they had the money. We've fixed that, just like Cubans not being able to have cell phones. Now, if the offer's there but you can't afford it, that's a different problem.
MIROFF: The change is also a welcome one for Cuban-Americans returning to the island to visit family. They used to rely on illegal rentals, bribes, and other schemes in order to vacation together. But now Cuba's tourist resorts are playing host to large family reunions.
Tampa resident Ileana Perez left the island six years ago, and she grew tearful describing how she'd saved her wages for three years in order to treat nine of her family members to a Varadero vacation.
Ms. ILEANA PEREZ: (Through translator) I see this as a good thing. At least nine people can come eat and enjoy themselves. But I would have liked to have brought more of my family. I'd like them to be able to come here without having to depend on me. They shouldn't have to wait for a family member to come from abroad just to enjoy their own country. And that really hurts.
MIROFF: Foreign tourists in Varadero have long enjoyed a kind of alternate Cuban reality, a sunny world of all-you-can-eat buffets in a country accustomed to food rationing.
Miami resident Karel Alemany left the island a decade ago. And while his family members seemed to be enjoying themselves by the pool, his thoughts were elsewhere, with the real Cuba beyond the beach.
Mr. KAREL ALEMANY: What about the other 11 million people that live here? What if they don't have someone else that comes to Cuba to take them to someplace? How do they live? How do they eat, you know? That's something you got to think about that.
MIROFF: This sentiment is just one more strange twist in this communist country's awkward embrace of international tourism. Like Alemany, Perez and others, many of the fiercest critics of the island's socialist system now find themselves straining to enjoy the beach, knowing so many others can't afford to do the same.
For NPR News in Varadero, Cuba, I'm Nick Miroff.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.