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The Pope's Visit Will Stretch Cuba's Overworked Hotels And Eateries

Just a few blocks from Havana's iconic sea promenade, Gabriela Garcia Rodriguez invites a visitor to check out her second-story, two-bedroom, vacation-rental apartment.

Garcia, a recent university biochemistry graduate, charges about $40 a night for the modest accommodations.

September is usually the low point in Cuba's tourist season. After all, it's almost constantly raining, it's extremely hot and the threat of hurricanes is high.

But since the U.S. and Cuba announced warmer relations last December and Garcia signed on with San Francisco-based Airbnb, which started operating on the island a few months ago, she's been nearly solidly booked.

The story is the same at Havana's overbooked hotels, growing number of crowded private restaurants and thousands of private homes opening up to paid visitors.

Friday, the Obama administration announced it would ease travel restrictions to the island. Add this weekend's visit by Pope Francis, and Cuba's overflowing tourist infrastructure will be put to the test.

According to official figures, the number of tourists visiting Cuba this year may even break last year's record of 3 million visitors, due largely to a 35 percent jump in American tourists. But international visitors from Latin America and Europe are making the rush too.

Garcia says they all tell her the same thing.

" 'I want to visit Cuba before it changes and before they put McDonald's in here.' People say that," she says.

With just around 60,000 hotel rooms on the island, the tourist industry is straining. Havana has only a handful of five-star hotels, and even those are plagued with faulty elevators, power outages and spotty Internet.

A photo of Pope Francis decorates the back of a tricycle taxi in Havana on Friday.
Alessandra Tarantino / AP
A photo of Pope Francis decorates the back of a tricycle taxi in Havana on Friday.

Andy Cummings and David Beer, traveling buddies from England, are on a diving trip to the island and spending a few days in historic Old Havana.

"Havana is a crumbling beauty, a really interesting place to come to," Beer says.

Both say they don't mind the lack of creature comforts. There was no water in their hotel during a few days of their stay. Beer says Cuba requires a heartier traveler.

"I know Americans like to have service," he says. "You know in England, we don't get a lot of service."

Some of that service is coming. Friday's announcement that the U.S. will ease restrictions on travel, telecommunications and banking rules will help. Carnival Cruise lines says it will start educational trips to the island next year, and American Airlines is looking to add a direct Los Angeles to Havana flight.

But Collin Laverty, who has been leading people-to-people cultural tours in Cuba for years, says glitches are still plenty.

"Delays with flights, you have trouble with baggage, and then you have challenges in terms of the quality of hotel rooms, and quality meeting expectations," Laverty says.

Laverty, whose bookings have been booming this year, says the pope's visit and the huge influx of tourists is definitely a test for Cuba. He says most of the time, it looks like everything here is ready to burst at the seams and fall apart.

"But at the end of the time, most people come to Cuba with an open mind and an open heart," he says. "And they leave happy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.