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Easton travel agent finds Cuba an eye-opener

Ellen Paderson, founder of Smiles and Miles Travel in Easton, went to Cuba recently on a fact-finding tour for travel agents. In January, the United States relaxed rules governing travel by Americans to Cuba. Official business is one of 12 categories under which US citizens may go, but they must be part of a tour. Other categories include entertainers, visiting family, humanitarian projects, and research.

Tourism isn’t yet allowed, but while on business, Paderson’s eyes were open as a tourist.

“The people we met were welcoming and seemed happy their country is opening up to Americans,” she said.

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“I also felt they’re cautious about the infrastructure not being able to handle millions of visitors. I think they’re years away from welcoming a lot of people in. I sense they don’t want people to hate it and not want to come again.”

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Paderson said she felt safe walking around. “They say there’s very little crime because they don’t have a drug issue,” she said. “But they do have alcoholism, because rum is so cheap.”

And so was dining out, she said. Several agents in her group had dinner one night, walking away from a full meal, drinks, and dessert for about $30 each. A 20-minute cab ride cost about $10, she said.

One negative, she said, was very spotty Internet and cellphone service.

“The Malecon is a beautiful esplanade that goes on for 5 miles on the coast, and the locals come out at night, bringing food, liquor, playing music,” she said. “That’s their entertainment.”

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She thinks Cuba will be on many Americans’ bucket lists because “it’s the hot new destination, like a forbidden fruit. I’ve had many inquiries from people wanting to go.”

While many will want to go, the reality that Cuba has a communist government is troubling to Paderson.

“Do I want to support that?” she said. “I wonder if money tourism brings in will help the people. That’s an interesting question, and I don’t know the answer.”

Cuba is also famous for cigars, an industry where seasoned cigar makers earn more than doctors, she said. She brought back a bunch of them.

“And I hate cigars,” she said with a laugh. “But I gave them away to people who don’t.”

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at pkandarian@aol.com.