Looking back at a visit to Cuba and the past century of tourism
Since mid-December, when U.S. President Obama announced a decision to restore relations with Cuba, I’ve read a variety of articles, online and in print, about Cuba. Some expressed opinions, either for or against, about Obama’s decision. Others speculated about what changes this decision might bring to Cuba. Others talked about travel to Cuba.
The articles brought back memories about my trip to Cuba almost eleven years ago. I starting looking through my photographs from my trip and, surprisingly, they didn’t look significantly different than the more recent photos posted in those articles.
Although most U.S. citizens are still unable to visit Cuba, tourism is one of the main sources of income for the Caribbean island. Beaches, a tropical climate, Latin culture, and affordability draw vacationers to the island. The largest numbers come from Canada, followed by Europe. A recent article in The Globe and Mail identified Cuba as a top-three destination for Canadians, behind the U.S. and Mexico, with more than one million people visiting in 2012.
Like the country’s political history, the history of tourism in Cuba does not follow a smooth path. Cuba was a popular tourist destination from 1915 to 1930. After 1930, tourism dropped off due to a combination of factors: the Great Depression, the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and World War II. Tourism rebounded in the 1950s and Havana, Cuba’s capital city, became known as the “Latin Las Vegas”. American organized crime was dominant in the industry at that time.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the government shut down many bars and casinos because of their association with drugs and prostitution. Banks and businesses were expropriated and the buying and selling of private property outlawed. (Note: The buying and selling of private property has since been re-legalized, in November 2011.) Nationalization of U.S. properties in Cuba, mass executions of members of the former regime, and fear of Communist insurgencies because the new Cuba government had the the backing of the Soviet Union led to deterioration of relations with the U.S. The U.S. imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo. It became illegal for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba in all but a few specialized circumstances.
Tourism did not disappear after the Revolution, but Cuban leader Fidel Castro downplayed it and many tourist facilities fell into disrepair. Most of the tourists during the 1960s and 1970s were from Soviet Bloc countries. A renewed emphasis was placed on international tourism beginning in the late 1970s. New hotels were built. However, tourism did not take off in a big way until the late 1990s.
As the Soviet Union became to crumble, the Cuban economy collapsed. In 1990, Castro declared “A Special Period in Time of Peace”. Severe rationing was introduced. Castro looked to tourism to provide much needed income and courted foreign investment. The “Special Period” was extremely tough for Cubans, bordering on starvation, but the investor-friendly climate attracted outside investment. Hotels and resorts were built and a renewed tourism industry launched.
(For an interesting perspective on the “Special Period” time in Cuban history, read the memoir Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin. The book is about her time in Havana when her husband was posted there in the early 1990s.)
Today Cuba gets over two million tourists a year. The majority stay in all-inclusive resorts along the beach. Locals do not have access to the resorts, other than working in them. Except for an occasional tour outside the resort and interaction with staff, many visitors do not see much of Cuba and have little contact with Cubans.
I too stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The previous year had been an intense and traumatic one. I relished the thought of laying on the beach with few decisions to make. I did make it out of the resort a few times and was struck by the country’s natural beauty, the vestiges of past glory, an easy-going but controlled feel, and an other-worldly strangeness.
One of the things contributing to a feeling of strangeness for me was the lack of American tourists. Like the majority of Canadians, I’ve lived most of my life in close proximity to the American border. American broadcasting is on my television airways; American movies are at the theatre. And when I travel, either to the U.S. or elsewhere, I usually encounter Americans. In Cuba, I felt as if I’d entered another world.
Jobs in the tourism industry were highly sought after, with slightly better pay and opportunity for tips. We rented scooters one afternoon. The person in charge of scooter rentals at the hotel was a trained professional (after all these years I don’t remember the profession exactly, but think he might have been a doctor) who made more money renting scooters to tourists.
In 1993, during the “Special Period”, Castro legalized U.S. dollars. Cubans with relatives abroad could receive remittances from them. Several shops sprang up operating in U.S. dollars, catering to tourists and offering non-essentials not available in government ration shops. When I visited in 2004, we joked about carrying wads of U.S. one dollar bills to tip just about anyone we came in contact with.
Late in 2004, Castro announced U.S. currency notes would no longer be accepted, blaming the U.S. administration for restrictions on amounts sent to Cubans by Cuban-American relatives and attempts to prevent international banks from providing Cuba with dollars. Instead the Cuban convertible peso (CUP) was introduced and pegged at par with the U.S. dollar. It is the currency used by visitors to the island. Cuban pesos are the currency used by locals. Neither currency is traded internationally, which means currency exchange must be done within Cuba. Neither currency is allowed to be taken out of the country.
One of the highlights of my trip to Cuba was a visit to Havana. The only word I can think of to describe the city is “surreal”. The streets were filled with a mixture of vintage cars, newer taxis and buses, people on bicycles, and bicycle taxis. Although the facades of many buildings were faded and in need of repair, the grandeur of a past time was visible. Buildings which had been spruced up sat next to ones dearly in need of loving care.
How the easing of relations between Cuba and the U.S. will unfold is still unclear. However that happens, I wonder what changes the next decade will bring. Cuban restrictions on the import of cars have already been loosened. Will that, combined with the possibility of being able to import some goods from the U.S., lead to the end of the iconic vintage cars in Cuba? Will U.S. tourists flock to Cuba? If so, how will that change the Cuban tourism industry? Will there be more hotels and resorts built? Will the price of a Cuban vacation increase? How will the changes affect the Cuban people? Will life become easier for them? Will they see more freedom? Or will the existing gap between those with access to tourist dollars and those without widen? Time will tell.
Have you been to Cuba? What did you think? Will you travel to Cuba?
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