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Trinidad's old sugar mills fascinate visitors.

In its heyday in the early 1800s, when sugar was king in the Caribbean, the sugar mill valley in central Cuba boomed with wealth, dazzling visitors with sprawling hacienda homes and even a watchtower rising nearly 15 stories high.

But Cuba's wars of independence in the late 1800s ruined local business, shifting sugar production to other regions and leaving the adjacent town of Trinidad stuck in a colonial time warp, with its cobblestone streets, courtyard homes and impressive Baroque churches.

Now, Cuba's communist government seeks to revive the once sugar-rich zone through tourism, capitalizing on the UN's designation in 1998 of the valley and town as World Heritage Sites.

Locals feel proud that their former backwater now draws a steady stream of foreign visitors, helping homeowners who rent rooms to tourists, residents who find jobs in restaurants and shops, plus artisans who make paintings, tablecloths, drums, pottery and other souvenirs. And officials cheer that income from tourism helps restore cultural treasures, from decaying hacienda homes to colonial art--two things that have languished for lack of cash.

Yet there's a long way to a boom here, with tourist income still too little to revive the flagging region. And many residents also worry that tourism is stoking inflation and social tensions.

Only two hacienda homes in the sugar mill valley have been restored for tour groups to date, with work slowly under way on a couple more, said Victor Echenagusia, 62, a painter and museum specialist at the Office to Conserve the City.

"We have the will, politically and technically, but sometimes what delays us is economics," said Echenagusia.

Cuba now produces a fraction of the sugar it once did--perhaps 1.5 million tons this past harvest, down from about 8 million tons a year in the 1970s. Over the last 10 years, tourism surpassed sugar as a source of foreign currency, and dozens of old and inefficient sugar mills were permanently closed. But in Trinidad, the former riches from sugar and the potential for tourism merge, with the nearly 15-story watchtower at the former Manaca Iznaga plantation as a visitor magnet.

Decried by some in its day as ostentatious, the tower stood as a lookout for the Iznaga family. Originally from Spain's Basque region, the Iznagas could climb to the top and see the vast sugar lands and some 15 of the valley's 57 mills, said Ramon Conrado, a bartender and resident historian at the family's former estate.

From atop the tower, visitors still can see the undulating hills of the valley, some planted in sugar and other crops, some with cattle. Below stand former warehouses and slave quarters.

Some days, over 1,000 people stop at the Iznaga plantation, most of them Europeans and Canadians. A few Americans visit, though most are banned because of the embargo.

Conrado likes that foreigners come to experience his homeland and learn its history, but he worries about the influx, too. He said Castro would never have embraced tourism were it not for the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet subsidies that sent Cuba's economy crashing a decade ago.

Yet residents of this colonial area of roughly 75,000 people see no return to the heyday of sugar centuries back.

"Sugar is expensive to make. In tourism, you invest less and gain more," said Juan Alberto Santander, 49, one of a well-known family of artisans in Trinidad who have benefited from the tourist surge. "And at least here, we have sugar history as a visitor draw."

Doreen Hemlock, a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, was the newspaper's Havana bureau chief in 2006 and still covers Cuba regularly. This article first appeared in the Sun-Sentinel.
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Author:Hemlock, Doreen
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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