Americans traveling to Cuba later this month are being moved out of Havana hotels to make room for President Barack Obama's entourage and being sent tantalizingly close to a place U.S. law effectively forbids them from visiting: the beach.
Obama will make his historic trip to the Communist-ruled Caribbean island on March 21 and 22 with hundreds of people in tow, crowning 15 months of warming relations after more than half a century of Cold War animosity.
Cuba is already experiencing a tourism boom and March is traditionally its busiest month. The Obama visit has put additional strain on hotels that have already been booked to capacity for much of the high season.
Major Havana hotels are being cleared, according to the head of a U.S. travel company who asked not to be identified for concern it would damage future business relations.
"Just got notice that the Capri, Panorama, Nacional, half of Parque Central and potentially other hotels have been told to send all guests to Varadero from the 19th to 23rd of March," he wrote in an email.
The Varadero resort, an hour's drive east of Havana, is Cuba's most sought-after tourism destination, with sandy white beaches, shimmering waters and plentiful hotels.
But the beach is off limits to Americans, as U.S. restrictions on travel to the island expressly forbid tourism in Cuba. Americans are limited to authorized travel such as educational and cultural exchanges. This means most U.S. visitors are concentrated in Havana, where there are lots of cultural sites and activities, a rocky seafront and scarce hotel rooms.
"The Cuban government is clearing out Havana hotels and sending visiting U.S. groups to Varadero Beach for a long weekend," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, which organizes authorized U.S. travel groups.
"Tourism will be hard to avoid for a few days as U.S. visitors are surrounded by white sand, turquoise water and all-you-can-eat-and-drink bars and buffets," he added. "But we will try."
Cuban travel agencies were not immediately available for comment.
Following the U.S.-Cuban detente announced by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December 2014, American visits to Cuba soared 77 percent in 2015 to 161,000 visitors. Cuba is expecting a similar increase this year.
Obama, a Democrat, has loosened travel restrictions to the once-forbidden land, as well as some other trade barriers. But only Congress, currently controlled by Republicans, can lift the U.S. embargo and its ban on tourism, in place since the early 1960s.