How to lose tourists

Meeting in Havana, travel agents learn firsthand why Cuba is a place to detour
November 09, 1959

All summer long the drums had rolled. "Go Carefree Go Cuba," said the rollicking ads in the American newspapers. "Cuba is gayer, more friendly, more exciting than ever. Cuba's new democracy-in-action offers you new freedom, new fun and the biggest welcome in the whole Caribbean!"

At the bottom of the ads came the clincher. The Cuban Tourist Office announced that ASTA—the American Society of Travel Agents—had chosen Havana for its 29th annual world congress in October.

The much-vaunted ASTA convention was a fat legacy that Cuba's revolutionary government had inherited from the Batista regime. ASTA is the single largest travel association in the world. Its membership is not limited to American and Canadian travel agents, but includes foreign agencies as well, not to mention an allied roster of virtually all the world's major transportation companies, hotel chains, and any island, government or resort from Tahiti to Tel Aviv interested in attracting the traveler. ASTA's presence, a much-sought-after plum, has been known to open tourist floodgates, bolster sagging economies and start new travel trends.

For Fidel Castro, whose big tourist plant had been an empty, unused shell since he took over on New Year's Day, the ASTA convention was the chance of a regime's lifetime, and he went all-out to take advantage of it. When the first ASTA delegates arrived on Saturday afternoon before the big convention week began, Havana's brand-new airport, rushed to completion, was ready. It was gay with flags, bunting and welcome signs. A hundred pairs of official eyes, including those of two short, scraggly soldiers only lately out of the hills sporting berets, fatigues and carbines, watched the first delegates come down the steps from the airplane.

ON THE FENCE

ASTA bags and ASTA delegates were rushed through customs without any examination at all. Flags and welcome signs were everywhere, not excluding a two-color neon diadem of welcome on the dome of the capitol and a large cutout sign wired to the fence of the Hospital de Dementes.

Fidel himself showed up on Monday morning at the Blanquita Theater to start the ASTA convention rolling. As if to signalize the peaceful nature of the occasion, he took off his ever-present gun belt and laid it aside. Then, with Carlos Almoina, the 28-year-old executive director of tourism, at his elbow, he delivered a disarming, off-the-cuff 25-minute talk in halting English. He welcomed the travel agents. He told them that Cuba was their island and that tourism was the salvation of it. He offered the sunny climate, the lovely landscapes, the friendliness of his people and a whopping promotion campaign to bring the tourists back. He got an ovation, and the editors of the convention's daily newspaper went back to the press room to write the headline, CASTRO WOWS DELEGATES, that was to appear the next morning.

More wowing was in store. That evening, in dark uniform and tie, Castro showed up again at a reception given on the grounds of the capitol building by President Osvaldo Dorticós. This time he was mobbed by the travel agents who, playing bobbysoxers to his Elvis, fought and pushed to have their pictures taken alongside him, shoving hundreds of convention badges at him to autograph. ASTA's president, Max Allen, tried to stop the near riot, but Castro insisted that he was pleased to sign the badges of all comers.

Even this was not the last that Fidel had to give to the convention. He disappeared into the night, but members of the press meanwhile had been notified that at 10:30 p.m. he would personally escort them through a small exposition—set up across the street from the Hilton—showing what life was like in the new Cuba. The appointed hour found a record turnout of 150 reporters, photographers, publicity people and the ASTA president waiting expectantly under a hot, brightly lighted, translucent canopy for the Premier to reappear.

We waited. After 40 minutes everybody agreed that Castro was undoubtedly held up by something important. A member of the newly organized tourist authority rose to speak for him. In eloquent terms he proceeded to explain the tremendous plan (already neatly explained in ornate press kits handed to each reporter) which would transform Cuba from a jazzy one-city tourist attraction to a 700-mile-long isle of wholesome vacation happiness.

One by one, other officials filed up to the platform, loyally vamping for their absent leader while the assembled press fidgeted and perspired under the hot lights. Cuba had relied too much on such unhealthy sports as nightclubbing and gambling, Castro's aides said. Fidel would keep the clubs and the wheels, but he was building 43 centers for hunting and fishing too. Cuban ducks, and particularly Cuban pigeons, would fly and die for tourists. There would be vacation cabins, clubhouses, boat-launching ramps, sports rental shops, skiffs and boats for hire. In remote areas there would even be mother ships where families could relax in comfort while father took off by small boat in search of fish and game in Cuba's keys.

A PRESENT FROM FIDEL

The minutes passed, turned into hours, and the list went on and on. Under the direction of the national Administration of Public Beaches and Tourist Attractions, Castro's officials said, a circling string of 60 public beaches on the north and south coasts of Cuba were being prepared for the public, tourists included. Each would have restaurant, locker rooms and cabanas. The city of Santiago, center of revolutionary activity in Oriente Province, with its memories of the Spanish-American War, would be turned into a great tourist city. A new jet airport would be built, and in two years travelers would be offered direct jet service from New York. Six hundred miles of country road would be built, and travelers would be invited to enter Cuba at one end, drive cross-country visiting its new resorts and its old cities all along the way and leave at the other end. To start the tourists flowing again $400,000 would be spent in advertising between now and year's end. Another million and a half would be spent in 1960. Not only would such annoyances as the $2.50 landing tax be swept away, but each arriving tourist would be given an envelope containing 25 postage-paid picture postcards. Fidel, they said, wanted to give each departing tourist a gift, too, and the tourist office had suggested maracas, a recording of Cuban music and a drum. Fidel himself had redesigned the package in the form of a Cuban hat and added packages of Cuban fruit.

About one a.m. there suddenly was a flurry at the entrance, and the by now familiar figure strode in, tall, heavyset, bearded. Momentarily roused, the newsmen rose and politely applauded. Unperturbed, a tourist official explained that this worthy was not Castro but a Cuban actor who frequently appears as his double.

When, a few minutes later, the real Castro appeared, there was another shock. In contrast to the affable atmosphere of the earlier morning meeting and the autographing, photographing, lionizing session at the capitol, the press conference, so long delayed, quickly disintegrated into an acrimonious political debate that did not break up until 3 a.m.

The next day, Tuesday, the convention awoke to find the delegate-wowing headline on their own paper as well as a present from Fidel they hadn't expected. The Premier, so full of welcomes earlier in the day, had spent the intervening hours between the reception and the delayed press conference delivering a heated television diatribe against the U.S. CASTRO TEARS INTO HIS ENEMIES IN THE U.S., the Miami Daily News proclaimed that noon—and indeed he had. While the ASTA press had sat and sweated, listening to his aides unfold the tourist dream, the Premier himself had been denouncing the very country whose citizens he was so ardently wooing. Said he: "We will dig in our trenches and fight from hill to hill to defend our revolution."

This seemed unbelievable, and most of the ASTA delegates apparently considered it so. Tuesday was given over to serious meetings, and on Wednesday the delegates were free to play, swim and travel, some even as far as Santiago, a 1,200-mile trip set up so that they would be back in time for a gala party Wednesday evening. Castro himself was off somewhere in Camagüey on a hush-hush mission. I went to Morro Castle to look at the spot where the Maine had been blown up ("it was an accident," was now the official line) and heard other high points of the war of liberation that followed ("the intervention" is now the preferred phrase). At El Salado, a beach near Barlovento, I saw the first beginnings of the string of resorts Castro's associates had described: a rakish central tower growing out of a nest of locker rooms complete with gleaming tiled showers, automatic hand-dryers; turquoise soap and big fluffy towels; cabanas down the beach, the first of 50 to be built, sporting television sets, electric kitchens, air conditioning and maid service, all for $15 a week, by contrast to the normal $20 a day charged by hotels.

Cuba seemed almost herself again in those two days, but Wednesday afternoon the illusion ended. Out of the blue came an airplane showering the capital with anti-Castro leaflets. Not tolerant of such point-of-sale criticism, Castro's forces opened fire with machine guns and antiaircraft shells. Two policemen in a squad car even tried knocking down the airborne interloper with pistol fire. Cuban planes rose to give chase, but one was hit by gunfire from the ground, and the intruder escaped. There were two street explosions, and two people were killed and 45 injured. Nobody that day suggested that the explosions had anything to do with the intruding plane. Police charged, instead, that hand grenades had been thrown out of speeding cars at the height of the leaflet raid.

SOME NEW VISITORS

Meanwhile in Camagüey, Castro himself was busy arresting an old revolutionary friend, Major Hubert Matos, who, disillusioned now by the turn the revolution had taken, had offered to resign and return to private life so that his four children "would not hear their father called a traitor in the streets." Matos and his entire staff, a group variously reported at anywhere from 19 to 38, were brought back to Havana's La Cabaña fortress.

None of this appeared to be on Fidel's mind when he reappeared Wednesday night at the huge reception at the Havana Riviera Hotel tendered to the ASTA registration by the combined French travel interests. But that same night chanting mobs roared past the Hilton demanding the death of all enemies of the revolution, and the next morning Castro's own paper, Revolutión, devoted its entire front page to the headline THE PLANES CAME FROM THE U.S.

Thursday night Castro got in his own licks before his own crowd when he went on the air in a wild four-hour television address. The leaflet planes had by this time become bombers based in the U.S., the street explosions bombs. The outrage, he shouted, could only be compared in infamy and in importance with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the blowing up of the Maine.

By now there was feeling among many that blown, too, were the chances of Cuba's marvelous tourist campaign. One who didn't think so, apparently, was Castro himself who, in spite of the developing events, appeared at ASTA's final business session on Saturday morning. And apparently equally oblivious of the developing events, some ASTA brass awarded him a plaque for his help in making the convention a success. Touched, he invited the inner ASTA circle to a sudden lunch in a penthouse perched high above Havana. Dates were broken as the delegates rushed to lunch with the now friendly Premier. But, alas, their new friend and host did not show up.

Then, with President Dorticós, he appeared at the final banquet Saturday night and listened while U.S. Ambassador Bonsai got a rousing hand from the delegates. Bonsai, in turn, listened while ASTA gave Castro the only honorary membership to be awarded in its 29-year history.

The schizoid performances left both Havana and the delegates dazed. The first cab driver I talked to as the convention week had begun in Havana many days ago had said to me, "Getting tourists back here is up to you." "It isn't only up to us," I told him, and he understood. "If the big one will only close his mouth we will get tourists," he said. The last driver I talked to on the way to the airport said simply, "I would like to take my family and go with you. For 18 years I have been in this business, and for 18 years I have just sat around and waited for things to quiet down."

As the ASTA week ended, the wait was far from over. If Cuba wanted tourists more than it wanted to play war, it was time to put away the guns, sheathe the machetes and get a shave and a haircut. If it wanted to bring tourists to its beaches, to its fishing grounds, to its old Spanish towns, to its lovely greening hills, it was time to stop fanning hatred against the U.S.

Just a week to the day after Castro had wowed the delegates at their opening meeting, he arrived at a rally of 300,000 hysterical followers, descending from the skies by helicopter carrying a Belgian submachine gun. And then, while the campesinos cried for blood, the only honorary member of ASTA called for a return of the firing squads that had already killed 450, raged against "foreign vested interests," demanded independence for "our Puerto Rican brothers," excoriated the U.S., referred time and time again to the "bombing of Cuba" and finally deplored the damage to the Cuban economy caused by recent events. All the efforts of his regime to promote travel to Cuba, he noted sadly, had been in vain.

PHOTOIN HAVANA'S BLANQUITA THEATER, 2,000 ASTA DELEGATES LISTEN EXPECTANTLY AS CASTRO UNFOLDS HIS DREAM OF TOURISM PHOTOSMILING CASTRO is mobbed at ASTA party. Later, he blasted the U.S. on TV.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)