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Encore: Cuba hopes if it builds hotels, tourists will come, after long COVID shutdown

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Cuba is hoping more tourists will visit after a lengthy pandemic shutdown. Tourism is vital to the communist country's economy, which is the worst it's been in decades. It's taken a beating from the pandemic and from Trump-era sanctions. Last week, the Biden administration rolled back some restrictions for U.S. travelers. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, it's unclear if Cuba will get the number of visitors it needs.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: There is a trickle of tourists heading back to Havana, although nothing like the more than 4 million a year before the pandemic.

MICHEL CLERAY: Michel, Michael.

(LAUGHTER)

KAHN: Despite the language barrier, Michel Cleray from France says everyone in his small group is enjoying the sights, especially the long line of classic 1950s-era cars lined up along the Grand Paseo Boulevard in Old Havana.

EDUARDO CEDENO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Unfortunately, it's been a dismal day for 36-year-old Eduardo Cedeno. He hasn't had one rider in his shiny red 1956 Buick convertible. It's the low season for sure, he says, but even the cooler winter months weren't so great. Many say Cuba missed out on a recuperating Caribbean market by waiting until late November to reopen its borders and drop strict COVID requirements.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This slick new video touts Cuba's uniqueness, says Pilar Alvarez Azze. She's with the Tourism Ministry that's hoping to lure at least 2.5 million visitors this year. Less than half a million have come so far.

PILAR ALVAREZ AZZE: I think it's a very good chance, and we are very optimistic about it.

KAHN: Experiencing one of its worst economic crises in decades, Cuba needs the cash. It can't buy essential imports, including most food and oil, without foreign currency. Inflation has skyrocketed, and Cubans spend hours every day waiting in lines for food and gas. Yet construction, like at this huge hotel set to be the biggest on the island, goes on. The government continued its aggressive building spree even through the pandemic.

This luxury hotel I'm standing in front of right now is called the Grand Aston Havana. It recently just had its grand opening, and it's stunning and has these two tall white towers with hundreds of rooms, many of them looking out over the ocean. The problem - it's practically empty.

AZZE: We keep on building the future, and the future is for our people.

KAHN: Pilar Alvarez Azze of the Tourism Ministry defends the controversial construction as necessary for Cuba's long-term well-being. But not all neighbors of the luxury hotel agree.

ELIAS DESPINE RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "That's where the princes live," says 52-year-old Elias Despine Rodriguez, pointing at the huge white hotel. Here's where the beggars reside, says Despine, pointing to his crumbling apartment across the street.

RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We thought that when they built the hotel, they'd fix our building, too, he says, but they didn't. Growing inequality has spurred resentment and sparked rare protests that erupted last July. Despine stands next to his 1947 classic Harley Davidson motorcycle with a for-sale sign on it. Like record numbers of Cubans today, he's trying to get enough cash to leave. He can't find work and has given up hope that even if tourists do come back, the economy would improve for him.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN'S "THIS MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.