Tourism in Cuba
Tourism in Cuba is an industry that generates over 3 million arrivals per year, and is one of the main sources of revenue for the island. With its favorable climate, beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history, Cuba has long been an attractive destination for tourists. Having been Spain's last, oldest, and closest colony until 1898, in the first part of the 20th century Cuba continued to benefit from big investments, creation of industries, and immigration. Its proximity and close relation to the United States also helped Cuba's market economy prosper fairly quickly. As relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after the Cuban Revolution and the resulting expropriation and nationalisation of businesses, the island became cut off from its traditional market by an embargo and a travel ban was imposed on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. The tourist industry declined to record low levels within two years of Castro's accession to power. By the mid-1960s the Communist government had banned and eliminated all private property, outlawed the possession of foreign currency, and eliminated the tourist industry all together.
Until 1997, contacts between tourists and Cubans were de facto outlawed by the Communist regime. Following the collapse of Cuba's chief trading partner the Soviet Union, and the resulting economic crisis known as the Special Period, Cuba's government embarked on a major program to restore old hotels, remaining old pre-communism American cars, and restore several Havana streets to their former glory, as well as build beach resorts to bolster the tourist industry in order to bring in much needed finance to the island. To ensure the isolation of international tourism from the state isolated Cuban society, it was to be promoted in enclave resorts where, as much as possible, tourists would be segregated from Cuban society, known to as "enclave tourism" and "tourism apartheid". By the late 1990s, tourism surpassed Cuba's traditional export industry, sugar, as the nation's leading source of revenue. Visitors come primarily from Canada and western Europe and tourist areas are highly concentrated around Varadero, Cayo Coco, the beach areas north of Holguin, and Havana. The impact on Cuba's socialist society and economy has been significant. However, in recent years Cuba's tourism has decreased due to the economic recession, escalating foreign investment conflicts and fears, and internal economic restrictions. Since its reopening to tourism in the mid-1990s Cuba has not met the projected growth, has had relatively little restoration, and slow growth. A lack of foreign investment has also had a negative effect. Since then, the Dominican Republic has surpassed Cuba in tourism, new development, and investment.
Cuba has long been a popular attraction for tourists. Between 1915 and 1930, Havana hosted more tourists than any other location in the Caribbean. The influx was due in large part to Cuba's proximity to the United States, where restrictive prohibition on alcohol and other pastimes stood in stark contrast to the island's traditionally relaxed attitude to leisure pursuits. Such tourism became Cuba's third largest source of foreign currency, behind the two dominant industries of sugar and tobacco.
A combination of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the end of prohibition, and World War II severely dampened Cuba's tourist industry, and it wasn't until the 1950s that numbers began to return to the island in any significant force. During this period, American organized crime came to dominate the leisure and tourist industries, a modus operandi outlined at the infamous Havana Conference of 1946. By the mid-1950s Havana became one of the main markets and the favourite route for the narcotics trade to the United States. Despite this, tourist numbers grew steadily at a rate of 8% a year and Havana became known as "the Latin Las Vegas".
Immediately upon becoming President of Cuba after the Cuban revolution of 1959, Manuel Urrutia ordered the closing of many bars and gambling halls associated with prostitution and the drug trade, this effectively ending Cuba's image as a hedonistic escape. A new governmental body, the National Institute of the Tourism Industry (INTUR), was established to encourage more tourism; taking over hotels, clubs, and beaches making them available to the general public at low rates. Tourist board chief Carlos Almonia announced a program of huge investment in hotels and the creation of a new airport. But fears of Cuba's post-revolutionary status amongst Americans, who constituted 8 out of 10 of visitors, meant a rapid decrease in travel to the island.
In January 1961, relations between the nations deteriorated as a result of bank and business expropriations, mass exodus, summary executions, and private property being declared illegal by a now openly communist regime being backed by the USSR. Tourism travel to Cuba was soon declared by the U.S. State Department to be contrary to U.S. foreign policy and against the national interest. Tourism that year dropped to a record low of a mere 4180, forcing a dramatic downsizing of Cuba's tourist plans. Visitors to Cuba during the 1960s, 70s and 80s were comparatively rare. The number of tourists to the island did increase slowly, but it wasn't until 1989 that they were to equal pre-Revolutionary numbers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused a crisis in the Cuban economy. The Soviets were Cuba's chief trading partner, and had effectively sheltered Cuba's sugar industry with large subsidies for 30 years. The lack of economic diversification during this period, and the sudden loss of key markets sent the country into a deep economic depression known in Cuba as the Special Period. The crisis precipitated the communist regime to find new avenues of income.
Policies were drawn up to satisfy the growing tourist markets of Canada and Europe with an aim to replace Cuba's reliance on the sugar industry and gain much needed foreign currency rapidly. A new Ministry of Tourism was created in 1994, and the Cuban state invested heavily in tourist facilities. Between 1990 and 2000, more than $3.5 billion was invested in the tourist industry. The number of rooms available to international tourists grew from 12,000 to 35,000, and the country received a total of 10 million visitors over that period. By 1995 the industry had surpassed sugar as Cuba's chief earner.
Today, travelers from around the world visit Cuba, arriving primarily via charter airlines to one of Cuba's seven main airports. By far the largest number come from Canada, where arrivals have been increasing by almost 10% annually since 2007. Europeans follow next, primarily arriving from Great Britain, Spain, Italy, France and Germany. According to the official government agency, it is unknown exactly how many Americans travel to Cuba each year as tourists, in violation of U.S. trade policy. According to some statistics around 20,000 to 30,000 Americans illegally travel to Cuba every year, while the Cuban government puts it higher at over 60,000. Americans usually reach Cuba via flights from Canada or Mexico. All visitors must pay a $25 exit tax at the airport prior to departure.
Foreign investment in the Cuban tourism sector has increased steadily since the tourism drive. This has been made possible due to constitutional changes to Cuba's socialist command economy, to allow for the recognition of foreign held capital. By the late 1990s, twenty five joint foreign and domestic venture companies were working within Cuba's tourist industry. Foreign investors and hoteliers from market based economies have found that Cuba's centralized economy and bureaucracy has created particular staffing issues and higher costs than normal. An additional factor cited by foreign investors is the degree of state involvement at the executive level, which is far higher than average.
The influx of foreign capital, and associated capitalist management methods, led outside observers to question whether Cuba's socialist system could survive the resulting transformation. Fidel Castro responded in 1991,
"In the conditions of a small country like Cuba... It is very difficult to develop... relying on one's own resources. It is for this reason that we have no alternative but to associate ourselves with those foreign enterprises that can supply capital, technology, and markets."
Castro was also of the belief that despite the undeniable influence of "capitalist ideology", socialism would prevail both in Cuba and the wider "battle of ideas".
Tourism and the environment
The Cuban government has established safeguards designed to ensure that tourism and other development do not result in significant environmental impacts. The development of new tourist facilities and related infrastructure in Cuba must, among other things, proceed in accordance with Cuban environmental laws and policies. In 1995 the Cuban government established the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA) and in 1997 the National Assembly has enacted Law 81 of the Environment, one of the most comprehensive "framework" environmental laws in the region. Pursuant to that Law, the government adopted a number of decree laws and resolutions aimed at ensuring that future development (including tourism development) is sustainable. Of particular importance to tourism development is Decree Law 212,Coastal Zone Management, which establishes setbacks and other siting requirements for new facilities in coastal areas. CITMA Resolution 77/99 requires a thorough environmental assessment of major new construction projects and requires that project developers obtain an environmental license from CITMA.
As well as receiving traditional tourism revenues, Cuba attracts health tourists, generating revenues of around $40m a year for the Cuban economy. Cuba has been a popular health tourism destination for more than 20 years. In 2005 more than 19,600 foreign patients traveled to Cuba for a wide range of treatments including eye-surgery, neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons disease, and orthopaedics. Many patients are from Latin America although medical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, often known as night blindness, has attracted many patients from Europe and North America.
Some complaints have arisen that foreign "health tourists" paying with dollars receive a higher quality of care than Cuban citizens. Former leading Cuban neurosurgeon and dissident Dr. Hilda Molina asserts that the central revolutionary objective of free, quality medical care for all has been eroded by Cuba's need for foreign currency. Molina says that following the economic collapse known in Cuba as the Special Period, the Cuban Government established mechanisms designed to turn the medical system into a profit-making enterprise, thus creating a disparity in the quality of healthcare services between Cubans and foreigners.
Although Fidel Castro sought to eliminate prostitution after taking power, the discrepancy between typical Cuban wages of less than one US dollar per day and the spending power of foreign tourists lures some Cubans, including minors, into prostitution. However, allegations of widespread sex tourism are downplayed by the Cuban Justice Minister, Maria Esther Reus. According to the Miami Herald, prostitution is not illegal in Cuba, but procuring a prostitute for others is outlawed. The age of sexual consent on the island is 16, according to the Miami Herald report. According to a travel advice website by the Government of Canada, "Cuba is actively working to prevent child sex tourism, and a number of tourists, including Canadians, have been convicted of offences related to the corruption of minors aged 16 and under. Prison sentences range from 7 to 25 years." It is illegal to import, possess or produce pornography into Cuba.
In the context of tourism a private residence in Cuba converted to allow paid lodging, usually on a short-term basis, akin to bed and breakfast residences elsewhere, is usually referred to as a "casa particular", which simply means "private house". They are typically a single-family residence, and are a very popular choice for tourists. Prices can range from 15 to 30 euros per night, or less for longer stays; the casas provide a more inexpensive option for young or independent tourists. A stay in a private casa allows tourists more opportunity to mix with local Cubans, and engage in Cuban cultural life.
Tourist vs Cuban hotels
Between 1992 and 2008, in order to gain the much-needed hard currency, some hotels and resorts were opened only to foreign tourists, leading to accusations of "tourism apartheid". The policy was reverted by the Cuban government in 2008.
Cuba's tourism policies of the early 90s, which were driven by the government's pressing need to earn hard currency, had a major impact on the underlying egalitarianism espoused by the Cuban revolution. Two parallel economies and societies quickly emerged, their demarcation line was represented by access to the newly legalized U.S. dollar. Those having access to dollars through contact with the lucrative tourist industry suddenly found themselves at a distinct financial advantage over professional, industrial and agricultural workers.
To ensure the isolation of international tourism from Cuban society, it was to be promoted in enclave resorts where, as much as possible, tourists would be segregated from Cuban society. This was not lost on the average Cuban citizen, and the government tourism policy soon began to be referred to as "enclave tourism" and "tourism apartheid".
In 1992, as Cuba entered the period of severe economic austerity, Fidel Castro defended the newly instituted policies in a speech to the Cuban National Assembly. He described the moves as an economic necessity that would need to be maintained for as long as the country had a need for foreign currency. According to Castro, the government was "pondering formulas" that would allow Cubans to use some of the tourist facilities as a reward for outstanding work, but believed that giving Cubans access to amenities at the expense of paying foreign tourists would ultimately be a counterproductive move for the economy; "For every five Cubans staying two or three days in one of those hotels, the country would have one less ton of meat to distribute to the people".
Until 1997 contacts between tourists and Cubans were de facto outlawed, and Cubans seen in contact with tourists were regarded as potential thieves by police. Global human rights groups complaints, and the upcoming visit of Pope, helped cause an about-face, although such contacts are still frowned upon, with standard harassment such as police identification checks for any Cuban seen in contact with a tourist common. Tourist identification is usually not checked unless the tourist has dark skin and is mistaken for Cuban. Despite the restrictions, average Cubans thrive on Cuba's tourist industry, and many simply see the policy as inevitable.
The policy of restricting certain hotels and services to tourists was ended by the government of Raúl Castro in March 2008. As well as officially allowing Cubans to stay in any hotel, the change also opened access to previously restricted areas such as Cayo Coco. However, access remains very limited in practice, as the vast majority of Cubans do not have access to the hard currency needed to stay in such hotels.
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- A five-part series of travel reports by Conor Kennedy: Gardens of the Queen: Caribbean’s Last Pristine Coral Reefs (2014-06-21), Preserving Cuba’s Oceans (2014-09-30), Crossing Cuba in a Chinese Bus (2014-10-08), 500 Years After Columbus, Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen Still Pristine (2014-10-16)
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