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HAVANA – Cuba's state-run tourism industry is increasingly doing business with the country's new class of private entrepreneurs, trying to improve quality of food and lodging while maintaining a grip on the sector's biggest sources of foreign exchange.
One of the country's highest tourism officials provided new details on the initiative in an interview with The Associated Press, saying two dozen restaurants for tourists have been converted into worker-owned cooperatives since January. Jose Manuel Bisbe, president of state tour operator Havanatur, also said his firm was sending tourists to hundreds of private bed-and-breakfasts instead of government hotels.
"The state must free itself from activities that aren't decisive for the economy and that experience is showing function better privately," he told the AP on Thursday. He said that some tourism-related businesses like bus transport and large-scale hotels would remain in state hands.
Tourism is one of Cuba's top four generators of income, along with nickel mining, medical services and remittances from relatives living abroad.
State-run restaurants for tourists and for Cubans have long suffered from complaints about poor quality and widespread pilferage by employees who resell food and supplies on the black market or take them for personal use. Hundreds of private restaurants have sprung up around the country since the launch of a limited economic liberalization four years ago and generally offer food and customer service far superior to those in government venues.
Cuba sees cooperatives as a middle ground between the communist model of state ownership and the private enterprise that has been making inroads into industries like restaurants and personal services under the reform meant to spur badly needed growth.
State news agency Prensa Latina has reported that Cuba has 11,000 restaurants, most for Cubans, and 1,260 private establishments known as "paladares," which cater mostly to visitors and foreigners living in Cuba.
Official statistics are sparse in Cuba and Bisbe declined to provide further details of the private enterprise initiative, including how many restaurants were run wholly or partly by the state tourism sector. The Ministry of Commerce also runs a large number of restaurants.
State news agency Cubadebate reported this week that 200 homeowners in the lush Vinales valley had signed deals with state tour operators to provide lodging for tourists.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein