Tourism in Cuba is slowly waking up, Havana needs more time than Varadero, where it’s party time again. Cubans enjoy the “all inclusive” (all inclusive) at low prices, fill empty beds, party, lounge and eat lavishly together with Canadians, Russians, British and some Germans.
Before boarding a sailing catamaran, two vacationing couples put on orange life jackets with the inscription “Marinas-Gaviota Cuba” that Donald Trump would never wear.
Most of these boats are not found on sea voyages, but rest on the fine sand of Varadero’s seemingly endless beach. The number of tourists in early December is still modest.
Gaviota belongs, as a large state tourism company, to the Cuban armed forces. His name also appears on sugar packets, buses, t-shirts and billboards. During his presidency, Trump imposed tough restrictions on this company that have not yet been lifted. However, it cooperates throughout the island with investors and management partners, mainly from Spain, Italy and Canada.
James Pollard enjoys his piña colada by the pool at the three-star Roc Arenas Doradas all-inclusive resort. “Vacations are wonderful,” says the guest from Toronto. “People are friendly, prices are acceptable. Here the sun warms even in winter. Some hustle and bustle at the buffet and the noise of the children do not bother me.”
A security service man in a gray uniform shirt, whose name tag reads “Miguel,” looks out from the green edge of the Grand Memories Hotel’s lawn toward the beach, waves, and boats. Three pelicans fly low over the water, looking for fresh prey. Miguel talks with a guest and explains: “Here everyone can bathe and walk. Our beach is public for everyone, whether they are foreigners or Cubans.”
But whoever wants to enter bars, swimming pools and restaurants in an “all inclusive” hotel complex and does not have a plastic band of the right color as an “entry ticket” on his fist is quickly approached in a very friendly way.
Until now, not many of the 55 beach hotels are open. “But every day the situation improves a little. We are all working hard on it”, says Miriely Miranda, from the management of the Spanish chain Roc Hotels. She is from Matanzas, not far from Varadero.
Varadero Beach, 20 kilometers long on the elongated Hicacos peninsula, 130 kilometers northeast of Havana, is white and fine sand, with very few sections of rock and almost no palm trees. They are found en masse in the nearby, adjacent hotel gardens, where bougainvilleas also bloom in purple, red and white and cacti, agaves and aloes command attention.
Varadero has an exciting history. The beaches, and once also the forests, attract everyone. The Taínos, like most Native Americans, suffered under the rule of conquerors who came from Europe. They were followed by pirates, lumberjacks, shipyard workers (Varadero means repair dock), wealthy owners of luxury residences and haciendas, supporters of the Batista dictatorship, and revolutionaries who opened the beaches to mass international tourism.
According to chroniclers, the first small hotels existed already about 100 years ago. Fidel Castro inaugurated in 2001 one of the great luxury complexes. The huge construction works have taken their toll on him, criticize some environmentalists, and also that the culture of the inhabitants has suffered.
Two young men from France with small backpacks from which bottles of water stick out walk quickly through the foam of the waves, children splashing and tourists lying in the sun. “We are athletes and we have to stay in shape,” explains the duo. They are staying at the elegant Royalton Hicacos Resort, having already walked past the Iberostar Tainos and the Starfish Hotel. Now they still have three kilometers to go to the destination, the center of the small town of Varadero.
During weekends and holidays, the atmosphere is lively and typically Cuban on the local beaches. Large families spread out on beach blankets, pulling out bread, rice, grilled meat, soft drinks, rum and beer from baskets and bags.
Some tourists mingle with the hospitable Cubans. Vacationers travel back on the hopp on hopp off double-decker bus. The ticket that is valid for a whole day costs five dollars.
In the past, when reservations in Varadero were optimal, tourists from all over the world only saw Cubans working as service personnel, waitresses, cleaning assistants, gardeners, entertainers.
But this winter, the island’s inhabitants are flocking to three- and four-star hotels that lure them with special prices due to the crisis stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. This means for all guests that sometimes you have to wait patiently with grandchildren and grandmother at the entrance of the restaurant and at the buffet.
Many foreigners welcome the new mix of tourists, but many do not appreciate the admittedly imaginative tactics of many Cubans to carve out space. Some Russians, Canadians, French and Germans take the time to observe and quickly learn, for example, that the exit and door for employees can become the entrance, with or without a tip.
Those who don’t like pure “Cuban” will spend a little more to be in the five-star category, where everything is usually quieter and of course more elegant. The occupancy rate in some high-class hotels on some days in December was only 20 to 25 percent. Wonderful for those who like tranquility.
In the Royal class of the Paradisus Varadero, of the Meliá Group, there are butlers who offer their services at no additional cost. 15-year-old rum and lobster are also served, but not always everything. Everywhere in Cuba, the guest has to lower expectations a bit, but he does not see it as a tragedy. Because in times of pandemic there are also problems in other countries and other holiday regions.
In Varadero, currently à la carte restaurants, bars and snacks can operate 24 hours a day, there may be shows, gymnastics, games in the pool and entertainment for children, this applies to all accommodation categories. Clubs and events with closer contact will open in the future, depending on the situation of the pandemic.
And on some beaches there are again parties with DJs, reggaeton, salsa, merengue and pop. A cool breeze blows. Couples and families get closer, others keep their distance. Many dance in the sand under the moon and stars.
And what measures govern the coronavirus pandemic? The mandatory use of the mask is, at the beginning of December, stricter in Cuba than in Germany and other countries. In Varadero, the mask must always be worn indoors, except when eating and drinking, and must always be worn outside, except in the pool and in the sea.
During check-in at hotels, guests look with interest at the screen: in the video you can see how busy and always smiling people clean tables and handles with great care, brush and also spray car tires to disinfect them. And a person measures the body temperature of new guests at the entrance.
In practice, less and less is measured. Perhaps this is a sign that after the terrible summer in Cuba, due to the coronavirus, and after the significant improvements in the fall, the number of new infections is really decreasing even more. Some Germans say they currently feel safer in Cuba than in Saxony, Thuringia or Bavaria.
Carlos García and his friend María, from a nearby town, are happy. They toast at the beach bar with caipirinha and ice-cold domestically produced Cristal beer on tap, which many beer connoisseurs now search for often in vain outside of Varadero.
Production in Cuba gets stuck in times of pandemic even more than before, natives and foreigners confirm. Carlos, 32, says: “We can finally make a dream come true: to go on vacation as rich foreigners, if only for this weekend.”
He pays 2,300 Cuban pesos (CUP) per day for one person in that four-star hotel. Anyone who has foreign currency and, for example, exchanges a dollar with merchants or friends, receives almost 80 CUP, with the state bank only about 24. In the best case, Carlos would have to pay about 30 dollars per person.
Change of scenery: even those traveling for beach vacations want to see the capital, at least for a little while. And many guests, especially Germans as well, prefer a combined trip of several significant points of the largest island in the Caribbean, which includes a few days in Havana in a hotel or in a private accommodation, called a “casa particular”, which costs Starting at $25 for two people.
This is also confirmed by Bernd Herrmann, general manager of the Senses of Cuba travel company in Havana. The German, who has lived here for a long time, says: “Business is now moving here as well. Tourism in Cuba will probably be in full swing by the end of 2022, if the pandemic does not frustrate hopes.”
On the Malecón, the wide avenue on the shores of the ocean, the foam of the waves today jumps over the wall. Cubans are happy that after a long confinement they are allowed to walk again, but also here only with the mask on.
The Hotel Deauville is still closed. Before the coronavirus pandemic, there was a party every night on the Malecón wall across the street, also with many foreigners, street musicians and rum vendors.
About 15 minutes on foot, in the Central Park, today you can listen to music, of course also Guantanamera and Comandante Che Guevara. The band from the former Hotel Inglaterra plays on the terrace, while locals and tourists sip coffee and daiquiri.
Nearby, many reconditioned Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Fords and Buicks, which are over 60 years old, wait for customers to arrive. Who negotiates can get a one-hour trip in the morning for about 22 dollars.
The double-decker tour bus has just started its tour of Havana with just five vacationers. In the past, most of the time, the upper deck used to be almost full.
In the old town, the first tourists are once again happy to see the restored historic buildings, to visit the cathedral and to have a drink in the Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio bars, where long ago the American writer Ernest Hemingway was a regular customer.
Apparently, some foreigners in Havana do not take the mandatory use of the mask very seriously. On Obispo Street, an elegantly dressed lady shakes her head and says: “The police often turn a blind eye to foreigners. Cubans have to pay a fine.”
The conclusion for many tourists who visit the country since the Cuban government relaxed entry requirements in mid-November 2021, and who feel a bit like pioneers with an adventurous spirit, is: Cuba yes. Those who are tolerant, accept improvisation and those who like to have more contact with the locals, should come soon, before everything is full again and more expensive.