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Havana quickly cleans up for tourists after hurricane, but other parts of Cuba have a problem

Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

Although businesses that opened directly to the Malecon took a heavy hit from the storm surge, repairs at many others just a few blocks back from the sea have already been completed.

The private Camino del Sol restaurant near the Melia Cohiba Hotel closed for repairs for two weeks after the water rose to nearly table height, but last week it was back in business offering homemade pasta and vegetarian fare. The walls had been repainted a crisp lime and white and the tables and chairs were new.

"Alert: It's just fine to come and visit," said Niuris Higueras Martinez, the proprietor of Atelier, a private restaurant in Vedado where former first lady Michelle Obama lunched in 2016.

The restaurant had no gas for six days and no power for three days. The front patio was coated with muck. "It was a terrible week, but all the neighbors got out and helped clean up," Higueras said. "Look, I've got calluses on my hands from all the cleaning."

What's currently lacking at Atelier are foreign visitors, including Americans who account for about 15 percent of her business. Even before the hurricane, she said new travel regulations announced by the Trump administration but not yet in effect have had a chilling effect on travel by Americans.

And so has a travel warning put out by the U.S. State Department that says visitors should "carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba" in the wake of Irma.

On Friday, the State Department issued another travel warning stemming from mysterious "health attacks" that have resulted in permanent hearing loss and other symptoms in some U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana. It advised against visits to Cuba because "we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk."

"This is the low season, but a few years ago, there was no low season. It was always the high season," Higueras said.

Nora Pocquet and Eduardo Altube, a couple from Rio Negro province in Argentina, arrived in Havana for vacation last week. The original itinerary for their package tour called for four days in Cayo Santa Maria off the north coast of Sancti Spiritus province and four days in Varadero.

"The tour operator told us Santa Maria was not in any condition to receive visitors," Altube said. So the eight-day trip was changed to two days in Havana and six days in Varadero.

Like most other tourists, the couple took a leisurely stroll along the Malecon from their hotel, the Copacabana, to Old Havana. "I think it looks quite OK," said Pocquet, adding that the only inconvenience was that sea water had inundated the swimming pool at the hotel and it was closed for repairs.

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