It calls itself the home of Cuban sandwich. Millions of Cuban cigars have been rolled and sold here.

Tampa, the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, will welcome thousands this month for the Republican National Convention. And businesses are getting ready.

The rich immigrant history of Tampa’s former Latin quarter, Ybor City, which was founded by cigar manufacturer in the 1880s and eventually became a strong Cuban stronghold the following century, is just part of Tampa’s charm.

As the Tampa Bay area grew up and Florida became a critical swing state, visits by sitting presidents have become relatively common, and Tampa has become a required campaign-trail stop for any candidate who hopes to win over the many swing voters here.

For visitors to the Aug. 27-30 convention, there is plenty more to take in.

Ybor City, adjacent to downtown, was for the first half of the last century the cigar manufacturing capital of the world, with more than 200 factories once lining the narrow streets. That heritage is celebrated here, and still alive in the cigar shops mixed in among the bars and restaurants in what is now a bustling entertainment district. In the so-called "Cigar City," aficionados can put fire to a fine stogie rolled minutes before right in the window of one those Ybor City shops.

Don't fancy a cigar? Then how about a Cuban sandwich? That's the other product virtually synonymous with Tampa and is similarly interwoven into its history.

A staple of the early immigrant communities in Ybor City, the sandwich of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on pressed Cuban bread remains a Tampa favorite, with many restaurants and sandwich shops claiming to have the best or most authentic version. (Like pizza, Cuban sandwiches are hardly ever bad, regardless of who makes them.)

The area is expected to benefit directly from the convention to the tune of around $175 million, according to the host committee, and down the road attract potential visitors from among the millions of people watching it on TV around the world. The event will attract three times more media members than the Super Bowl, which Tampa has hosted four times.

"It's coverage that you can't buy," said Travis Claytor, spokesman for the area's tourism bureau. "Every time they do a cut-away shot of the skyline of downtown Tampa or the Tampa Bay Times Forum, or show beauty shots of the beaches and the attractions, that's promoting the destination like we've never been able to promote it before. This is an opportunity that has never come along before, and it's priceless, to be honest with you."

Tampa will be the focus for convention visitors, of course, with its big-city skyline, world-class aquarium, Busch Gardens theme park, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, and the riverfront arena where all the convention floor action will take place. But the area is what it is — cool and cosmopolitan enough to attract Super Bowls, NCAA Final Four tournaments and now, a political convention — because of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the rest of what is collectively known as "Tampa Bay."

Visitors will do themselves a disservice if they don't cross the bay and check out St. Petersburg's stunning waterfront downtown area, as well as the youthful vibe of Clearwater Beach. Some of the best white-sand beaches anywhere are close by, too. Two of them — Fort DeSoto Park and Caladesi Island — have topped the list from Stephen P. Leatherman, a Florida International University professor dubbed "Dr. Beach" for his annual rankings of the nation's best coastlines.

Just north of Clearwater is Tarpon Springs, a small town established by Greek immigrant sponge divers in the early 20th century whose descendants have worked hard to maintain the distinct Mediterranean flavor. The sponge docks now cater to tourists with a string of wonderful Greek restaurants, bakeries and gift shops.

"It was presented (to the RNC) as a complete area and all we have to offer," said convention host committee spokeswoman Aileen Rodriguez. "The community really came together to put the bid together and get it in. Now we're excited about showcasing the whole area to the guests who are coming into Tampa Bay."

Delegates and other visitors will be utilizing hotels on both sides of the bay, with a network of as many as 400 buses will shuttle them to and from the Tampa Bay Times forum for the four nights of the convention.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press. 

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