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Inside the Cuba That Americans Never See

Varadero Beach, a top tourist destination in Cuba, is part of a booming construction business with the help of European investors.

VARADERO, Cuba — After a half-century of estrangement, few Americans have had the chance to see this island nation for themselves — or to spend money here. And while President Barack Obama has opened the door to re-establishing diplomatic relations, a ban on travel to Cuba by U.S. tourists remains in place for now, leading many to wonder what Cuba will look like when and if American tourist dollars start flooding in.

"The people are friendly, and, you know, it's time to end all that — the embargo," said Marcus, a tourist who didn't give his last name.

Its white sands, clear waters and pristine golf courses have made Varadero Beach the biggest tourist attraction in Cuba and one of the biggest in the entire Caribbean. European companies are pouring in money in a construction boom catering to the tourists who flock here.

Trevor Carmichael, a Canadian tourist, was enchanted. "It's beautiful," he said. "It's a good place to escape the Canadian winter, so we're having a good time down here."

Like Carmichael, most of the tourists come from Canada or from Britain and Germany. If you're an American, though, you need a foreign passport — like Ian Baldwin of Boston, who's here on a Swiss passport.

"I think it's good. It's good for the country, for the people," Baldwin said. "This place has sort of been stuck in time."

Varadero Beach, the leading tourist attraction in Cuba.NBC News

The Golf Club at Varadero is next to the estate once owned by the DuPont family, and much of the area is out of financial reach for ordinary Cubans. That leads some government critics to worry more American tourist dollars would only serve to keep the Castro regime in power.

And those who are here get the distinct feeling that by being here now, they're avoiding the rush.

"We'd like to come back in, like, 10, 15 years and see how it's changed and how much it's changed," said Will Kinder, who's visiting from Britain. "Because a lot of people we've spoken to have good and bad thoughts, so it's nice to see how it works out."

M. Alex Johnson of NBC News contributed to this report.