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World

Cuba Prepares For Onslaught Of American Tourists As Commercial Flights Open Up

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Havana is full of tourists. You can't get a hotel room in the famous Cuban beach town of Varadero. And now Americans are going to start arriving. Maybe you're one of them. There are some spots, though, that have yet to be hit by the tourism onslaught. And as Deepa Fernandes reports, the locals in one small fishing village are mixed on whether they want more foreign beachgoers.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: The water is a piercing turquoise in the mornings. And as the evening winds pick up, the ocean becomes more of a fishing paradise.

(CROSSTALK)

FERNANDES: Playa Larga is about two hours southeast of Havana in the province of Matanzas. During the day, tourists are splayed out on towels, dotting the sand. And in the early evenings, when the sun is going down, locals start coming out.

ROGEL: Hola, me llamo Rogel.

FERNANDES: This is the kind of beach where musicians stroll along the sand and will set up and play for locals and, increasingly, for any tourists willing to tip.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FERNANDES: But this is now the soundtrack of Playa Larga.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

FERNANDES: Some of the shacks are being renovated - sprucing up a room here, adding the luxury of an air conditioner, toilets with proper seats. In the last few years, some professionals have decided to quit their jobs and move full time into the tourist economy, like Mileidy Alvarez La Rosa.

MILEIDY ALVAREZ LA ROSA: (Through interpreter) This was our vacation house where my girls, my husband and I would come for the summer months. And then about five years ago, we decided to move here permanently and make this house a business by renting rooms.

FERNANDES: Everyone's aware that with the new overtures from President Obama, many Americans will begin coming. But not everyone is thrilled. On the beach front, another small home that rents rooms to tourists is running a bustling little operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: Right next to a thatched roof shack, this air-conditioned, five-room hotel with restaurant is run by a couple who spent most of their professional lives as a lawyer and a literature professor.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES RATTLING)

FERNANDES: Mayuri Sanabria loves teaching classical Spanish writers at the local university. Now she and her husband have converted their home to be a little hotel, simple but among the nicest on the beach. Her hotel would probably be full every night if Americans started visiting.

MAYURI SANABRIA: (Through interpreter) No, I'm not interested in more tourists coming because you'll see how things here will change. Cuba's tranquility will end, I'm sure of it.

FERNANDES: Even the prospect of owning more hard currency doesn't sway her.

SANABRIA: (Through interpreter) Happiness doesn't come from material things. You make your happiness. The more money you have, the more worries you have.

FERNANDES: Directly behind their small hotel, I find a nail salon.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAILS BEING FILED)

FERNANDES: It's a table in a sweltering room where to get a pedicure, you stick your foot up on the table and Amarili Garcia will draw in your foot and cradle it in her ample bosom as she files, clips and massages.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAILS BEING FILED)

FERNANDES: She charges one cuc, a little over a dollar, for a pedicure. Despite being right behind Sanabria's hotel on the beach, her clients are all locals, she tells me. Surely, she must be excited for more tourists coming, which might mean more business for her, I ask.

AMARILI GARCIA: (Through interpreter) No, we want to sell our place and move to another place, just another place around here.

FERNANDES: She wasn't swayed by the fact that tourists come for the beach, which her salon abuts. She just wants to keep doing her customers' nails and doesn't need to be near the beach for that, she tells me. Garcia's husband runs a produce store on the back porch of the house.

GARCIA: (Through interpreter) That business is his, and this one is mine.

FERNANDES: Who earns more?

GARCIA: (Through interpreter) He does.

FERNANDES: So there's more money in fruit and veggies than in nails?

GARCIA: (Through interpreter) Yes (laughter). When I need money, I just ask him.

FERNANDES: As Garcia's husband does a slow trade of fruits and veggies on the back porch, a gaggle of kids rush past him and into the nail salon.

(CROSSTALK)

FERNANDES: It's Amarili Garcia's nephew with a bag of loot he's trying to sell her, mangoes that he and his friends have picked off a nearby tree. She's amused at the kids' attempt to earn some money.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: And despite her porch having crates of mangoes that her husband is trying to sell, she bargains down the price a little and then tells the kids she'll buy them.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: After all, kids need to earn some money, too, she says. And what will the kids do with their earnings?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDES: Picking fruit to sell and buy ice cream. I guess it's the rural Cuban equivalent of a lemonade stand. And after years without private enterprise on this socialist island, it's creeping in everywhere. For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.