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U.S. travel warning troubles Cuba’s small-business operators

  • A cook of a private restaurant stands at the entrance, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travelers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan

  • Tourists ride a classic convertible car on the Malecon beside the United States Embassy in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travellers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan

  • Maritza Martinez waits for customers at her home where she rents a room in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travelers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan

  • Local tour guides look for customers in their convertible car near a cruise ship docked in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travelers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan

  • A waitress at a private restaurant waits for customers in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travelers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan

  • A driver waits for customers in his classic convertible car in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Thousands of private Cuban businesses have invested heavily in private homes, cars and restaurants, hoping to cash in on an expected wave of American travelers to the island. Now that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for the country, their investments are at risk.(AP Photo/Desmond Boylan) Desmond Boylan



Associated Press
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A U.S. State Department travel warning for Cuba following mysterious attacks that harmed nearly two dozen American diplomats has come like a bucket of cold water for the aspirations of thousands of private entrepreneurs on the island.

Amid a sudden diplomatic thaw between the Cold War foes that began in 2014, many Cubans invested heavily in privately run restaurants, homestay B&Bs and cars to operate as taxi cabs in hopes of cashing in on an expected boom of American tourists.

But now entrepreneurs worry Americans will be frightened away – even though there has been no word of any tourists affected.

Nowhere are such fears more pronounced than in Old Havana, where many Cubans bought into a hot real estate market as part of a proliferation of B&Bs catering to the hordes of tourists who stroll its cobblestoned streets each day.

“We got to work opening businesses, bars, restaurants, rental homes, and many people invested everything we had, and even borrowed,” said Yunaika Estanque, the 51-year-old owner of a three-room hostel.

Estanque partnered with her parents and two children. They all sold other properties and sought additional financial backing from a friend who lives overseas, and two years ago bought a rickety colonial home steps from the Bay of Havana.

Today it has been spruced up and reborn as the Mi Tierra (My Land) hostel, whose polished vintage floors, warm pastel walls, republican-era furniture and modern air conditioning make for attractive and affordable digs at just $35 a night per person plus $5 more for breakfast.

Mi Tierra opened its doors about two months ago and has received mostly European travelers so far, but it’s Americans that Estanque truly has in mind long-term.

“American tourists consume a lot and leave good tips,” said Estanque, who speaks English and uses it with guests to make them feel welcome. “Now there is going to be a lot of supply, but relatively little demand.”

In addition to the travel warning announced Friday, the State Department also said it was reducing by about 60 percent its diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and indefinitely suspending visa processing in Cuba. On Tuesday, Washington went further, expelling 15 Cuban diplomats to protest Havana’s failure to protect American envoys from the attacks, which have not been explained.

The United States has not accused Cuba of being behind the attacks. President Raul Castro’s government has disavowed any culpability and called the U.S. response “reckless,” “hasty” and politically motivated.

Tourism is an important source of badly needed foreign currency for Cuba, one of a handful of key sectors that keep its weak economy sputtering along.

Last year about 4 million travelers visited the island, according to government statistics. That included 281,000 Americans, up from just 91,000 in 2014. There were also 400,000 visits last year by Cubans living overseas, the vast majority of whom reside in the United States.

U.S. tourism to Cuba is still small compared with the numbers already coming from Canada, Europe and elsewhere. But analysts have predicted that if the U.S. embargo on Cuba were to be lifted entirely, 1 million or more American travelers could inundate the island on an annual basis.