HAVANA: President Raúl Castro's government on Monday lifted a ban preventing Cubans from using resort hotels reserved for foreigners in a step to ease restrictions in the Communist state.
Since Raúl Castro succeeded his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, last month, the country has ended restrictions on Cubans buying computers, DVD players and cellphones.
"Cubans can now stay at our hotels," said the Cuban manager of a small state-run hotel in Old Havana. "Our doors are open to local tourism."
Managers at five-star hotels run by foreign hotel chains like Sol Meliá and Accor, Europe's largest hotel chain, confirmed that Cubans would be able to stay at their hotels if they could afford them.
Cubans can also rent cars and use facilities that used to be only for foreigners, including the best beaches in Varadero, Cuba's top resort.
The hotel ban was a major source of frustration for Cubans since the country opened up to tourism in the early 1990s and gave rise to criticism of Cuba for having an "economic apartheid" system.
Raúl Castro, 76, took over from his brother as Cuba's first new leader in almost half of a century on Feb. 24, promising to do away with "excessive restrictions" in society and in its state-run economy.
On Friday, the government announced an end to a ban on Cubans buying and using cellphones.
As of Tuesday, Cuban shops will be allowed to sell computers, DVD players and other appliances in a move to improve the standard of living in Cuba by opening access to consumer products.
Raúl Castro has also begun restructuring agriculture to reduce bureaucratic bottlenecks and lift food production.
Until now, only Cubans on honeymoons and workers selected for high productivity and revolutionary zeal were allowed to stay at hotels as a reward.
Cubans will have to pay the going rate in hard currency to stay at luxury hotels. Few can afford these prices in a country where the average wage is $17 a month.
"It took a long time, but its done now," said Martin Díaz, 34, a Havana worker. "I'm going to start saving right away to go to Varadero next summer."
Cubans who recalled the 1980s when they were allowed to stay at hotels and had the money to do so welcomed the end of the ban, but they wondered if they could afford a hotel now.
The restrictions were introduced after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union forced Cuba to open up to foreign tourism and investment and legalize hard currency in the midst of a severe economic crisis.
"I don't think I can afford to go to Varadero, but I'm glad to know I have the option to do so whenever I want," said Alfredo Hernández, 43, a self-employed resident of the eastern city of Santiago.
Cuba's tourism industry is a major source of foreign exchange, bringing in more than $2 billion a year, but the number of visitors has declined in the last two years. Foreign hotel managers said allowing Cubans to stay at tourist hotels would help business during the slow summer season.
A major public complaint that Raúl Castro's government will need to deal with is that wages in Cuban pesos are too low, while consumer goods have to be paid for in convertible pesos, or CUCs, worth 24 times more than pesos.
About 60 percent of Cubans have access to some hard currency from cash remittances sent by relatives living abroad, mainly in the United States, or through factory and farm bonuses and tips from foreign tourists.
A class of "new rich" has developed in Cuba over the last 15 years and will be the first to take advantage of seaside hotels, computers and cellphones that cost $120, or about six times the average monthly wage.
"The government is recognizing that around 15 percent of the population has 90 percent of the pesos in the banks," said a Cuban economist who asked not to be named.