RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. If you're thinking about taking a vacation this winter, consider this: Cuba would like more tourists, and more Americans would like to visit. But a ban on American travel to Cuba has been in place - with some exceptions - for decades. Legislation in Congress could change that, and travel industry officials estimate that as many as one million Americans might visit the island each year, if permitted. It's unclear if Cuba's ready for such a huge jump in visitors, as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: For many Americans, Cuba is the forbidden fruit in the Caribbean, and tourism executives expect the Yankees to gobble it up if they get the chance. And Cuba has a lot to offer. First, as the only one-party communist state in the Americas, it certainly provides Western visitors with a change of pace. Second: the lack of development that's left parts of the country feeling like a time warp to the 1950s. Third: Havana is only as far from Miami as Boston is from New York. Then there are the beaches, the mountains and the history.
(Soundbite of bird chirping)
BEAUBIEN: In the city of Remedios, the main church was built in the 16th century.
Mr. ESTABAN AUGUSTIN GRANDA FERNANDEZ (Church Caretaker): (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Estaban Augustin Granda Fernandez used to play the organ at the church. Now, at the age of 87, he's the caretaker and shows visitors around the sanctuary. He says this church was built in the year 1550. He points out the timbers in the ceiling, the original Spanish tiles in the floor. In the back, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary, who appears to be dancing the flamenco.
Mr. GRANDA: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: Granda also points out that she's got a bulge in her belly.
Mr. GRANDA: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: This is the only image of a pregnant Virgin Mary in Cuba, he says, slapping his own stomach.
And Remedios is just one tiny town across the 600-mile long island. Travelers could visit the labyrinth-like streets of Camag�ey, which were laid out in the 1500s to be intentionally confusing to attacking pirates. Or they could go snorkeling in the Bay of Pigs or lounge on the white sand beaches favored by Hemingway along the north coast.
Mr. ROBERTO MASEO (Employee, Dive Shop): Our main market is the Canadians, because it's very close.
BEAUBIEN: Roberto Maseo works in a dive shop in the beach town of Santa Lucia.
Mr. MASEO: It's only like three hours from Toronto to here, or Montreal to Camag�ey.
BEAUBIEN: Santa Lucia has a series of two and three-star resorts that sell all-inclusive package vacations. Maseo says it's a value resort. They take people out scuba-diving - all equipment and transportation included - for about $35.
Mr. MASEO: Right now - so we're preparing for the trip of the sharks - the shark show. We feed the sharks - the bull shark. There's no protection at all. The shark is swimming all over you all the time, over your heads. And it's amazing. People can actually touch them. There's no problem.
BEAUBIEN: Tourism is hugely important to Cuba. In 2008, it was the second leading source of income after nickel exports. And more importantly, it's been a growing source of revenue. The communist regime wants to expand it even more. There are plans to open 30 new hotels across the island in the next five years. And while Cuban officials say they're not banking on Washington lifting the travel ban, hundreds of thousands of additional visitors from just across the Florida Straits could pump much-needed cash into Cuba's flagging economy.
(Soundbite of water running)
BEAUBIEN: In the capital, in the lobby of a Spanish-run hotel, water bubbles through an elaborate series of fountains.
Mr. DARIO FERNANDEZ (General Manager, Hotel Melia Havana): This hotel, Melia Havana, has 400 rooms.
BEAUBIEN: Dario Fernandez is the general manager of the hotel.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: We have seven restaurants. We have the biggest pool in Havana.
BEAUBIEN: The Melia Havana is jointly owned by the Cuban government and a group of foreign investors. It's managed by the Spanish resort chain Sol Melia.
Mr. FERNANDEZ: For us, the American market, it's a big market. It's a big opportunity.
BEAUBIEN: Fernandez says currently about 3 percent of his guests are from the States, but he estimates that could rise to 50 percent without the travel ban.
Jesus Noguera Ravelo, who works as a tour guide, says Cuba's infrastructure isn't ready for a huge influx of American visitors. He notes that there aren't enough buses, rental cars, quality restaurants or hotel rooms.
Mr. JESUS NOGUERA RAVELO (Tour Guide): But if you ask me about the will of the Cuban people, I would say, yes, we're ready. We would like to have more exchange with the United States and more people coming from United States to Cuba.
BEAUBIEN: Noguera says the American visitors who do come have a lot more interest in Cuban history than other tourists - in part because the two countries have such a long, intertwined relationship. One place that's overflowing with that shared history is the Hotel Nacional in Havana.
Ms. ESTELLA RIVAS VASQUEZ(ph) (Tour Guide, Hotel Nacional): We have (unintelligible) in that room. They stayed on their honeymoon, Mr. Frank Sinatra, the great American singer, and the beautiful woman Ava Gardner.
BEAUBIEN: On weekdays, Estella Rivas Vasquez gives tours of the Nacional. The Nacional was built in 1930 and modeled after the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.
After Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he shut down the hotel's casino and installed Soviet anti-aircraft guns along the front lawn. And under the lawn there's still a bomb shelter.
Ms. VASQUEZ: (Unintelligible) exists a bunker built in the moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October, 1962.
BEAUBIEN: However, guests don't want to think about the moment the world was pushed to the brink of nuclear war, the clash between capitalism and communism. They can sip mojitos at an outdoor restaurant, looking north across the water towards Florida.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.