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Tourism expands, sweetens Cuban life

Today overseas visitors generate more than 40 percent of Cuba's income.  

HOLGUIN, Cuba (CNN) -- The Cuban chefs serve Japanese food to European and Canadian tourists, while waiters serve snacks to overseas guests on white, sandy beaches.

It's hard to believe this is the centuries-old heart of Cuba's sugar country.

In Holguin province, where cane fields once dominated the horizon, modern apartment complexes are springing up as housing for the thousands of former farmers.

They have abandoned the fields to mine Cuba's new national treasure: tourism.

Today overseas visitors generate more than 40 percent of Cuba's income. Although the island nation is still officially off-limits to the nearby Americans, nearly 2 million tourists are expected this year.

No longer is tourism limited to Varadero Beach and Havana on the western side of the island. The government is opening up new hotels in joint ventures with overseas firms all along Cuba's northeastern coast.

Cuba's economy, once dependent on its sugar harvest, has turned to tourism as a lifeline.  

"The tourism in Varadero is very well known, with long years of tradition and history," said Kees Aerts, manager of Breezes Costa Verde. "But the future will be in the countryside where it is unspoiled, with beautiful beaches."

The tourists, mainly Canadian and European, see other advantages.

"Cost is an issue," one visitor said. "It's less expensive and it's ... so natural. What you see is what you get."

For as long as anyone can remember, Cuba's economy depended on its sugar harvest. But in the early `90s, the collapse of Soviet subsidies to the communist island made the fortunes of the already inefficient sugar industry plummet.

Rather than keep betting on a losing horse, the government turned to tourism as a lifeline.

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