Cuba Travel: Guidebooks and Sugar Mills

Graham Sowa

HAVANA TIMES — In the Cuban provinces tourism is taking the place of sugar as the economic powerhouse, concentrating talent and competition in a few select tourist destinations.  The future looks grim for rural socialist egalitarianism.

This March marked my third year in Cuba. In that time I’ve visited three provinces outside of Havana. None of those trips lasted more than 48 hours. So when a friend came to visit the other week I decided I was well overdue for some time outside of Havana. We took off for the well known rural Cuban destination of Trinidad.

We traveled by Viazul, a Cuban bus company that caters to people paying in hard currency Convertible Pesos.  The service was excellent, other than the fact that they took an inexplicably convoluted route that turned a 4 hour trip into over 6.  We disembarked our ice-house on wheels (I guess they are trying to keep the smuggled meat and seafood from going bad) in Trinidad.

To leave the bus station in Trinidad we had to run a gauntlet of people shoving signs and pictures of their casa particular; trying to sell us lodging, food, or whatever else.  Even though we were in “rural” Cuba walking through that mass of people reminded me of the tourist areas of Havana Vieja:  crowded, rude, and desperate.

We made a quick escape from Trinidad on bicycle.  Stopping only twice to fill a couple of water bottles with beer on tap.

On our short peddle to the neighboring town of La Boca we got caught by a torrential downpour.  Taking shelter in a house that turned out to be a casa particular the owner told us it was the first rain in four months.  The lack of rain explained the skinny cows I kept seeing on the farms we passed in the bus.

Even though the owner of the casa had no vacancy he offered us a spot on the porch to wait out the rain and some mangoes that had fallen from their tree during the storm.

I was curious about the crowds of hawkers accosting the passengers of the pesos convertibles bus (I doubt they bother with the moneda nacional bus) so we struck up a conversation about tourism.

The owner told me the casa particular that he rents out to tourists is the second home in his family.  The primary residence of his family is in a town in Sancti Spiritus Province…a town he described to me in terms that reminded me of one of those towns in rural Texas that the train stopped coming through and suffered a slow, agonizing, death.

He said the sugar mill shut down a few years ago, along with the important sugar refinery attached to the mill that served several surrounding towns as well.  All the technical jobs left.  He said the other option for employment is agriculture.

But the good land is already controlled by the cooperatives, and there is little space for newcomers.  And then of course there are those people who feel that agriculture is not something they want to do, for whatever reason.  So the residents either left or are waiting around for nothing much to happen.

Now his family lives between their hometown and La Boca. Tourism fuels the household income.

I asked about how they advertised their casa particular to international tourists from this small seaside town you can’t even see on Google Earth unless you zoom in really really close.  After all, we had only found his place because a rainstorm forced us to take refuge under the porch.  And with four months between rainstorms it seemed an unlikely way to get customers.

He told me they rely on word of mouth, repeat business, and sometimes paid people to hold signs outside the bus station.  So that explains the Trinidad welcoming committee.

Then, as if telling me a well kept secret, the kindly casa owner told me the real desire of any casa particular owner was to get into the “guidebooks”.  A recommendation in Lonely Planet means that there is almost always a paying guest.

Casa’s with internet access also have a decided advantage over their competitors.  A quick unraveling of the mythological rural solidarity of Cuban socialist farmers was taking place before me.

That being said, I did see cooperation between a few casa owners in La Boca.  As the rain let up the owner of the house that had been kind enough to chat with me recommended us to another house that was not far away.

The owners at that house were welcoming and were kind to include breakfast at no additional charge after a minimal amount of haggling over the price.

In the morning when we left they gave us each a business card and told us to come back whenever we want.  They also added an unsolicited bit of what, I guess, they think is good business practice: “we don’t rent to Cubans, so it is always tranquil here”.  Good to see that the tourist market is doing so much to encourage Cuban-Cuban solidarity.

So while we read about the daily updates about the sugar harvest in Granma the travel guidebooks, and the tourists that bury their noses in them, are replacing sugar quotas as the lifeblood of the rural Cuban economy.   Perhaps in a few generations the future Cubans will talk of the “Zafra of 10 million tourists” instead of the “Zafra of 10 million tons”.


Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

6 thoughts on “Cuba Travel: Guidebooks and Sugar Mills

  • My 80 year-old mom is a ‘professional’ cruiser. She takes at least 4 cruises a year. The thing about ‘cruisers’ is they don’t venture very far from the ship and other than buying a few trinkets and a meal at a restaurant, don’t spend much money. Much of that money is spent at restaurants or tourists shops owned or controlled by the cruise line. Still, there is the pesky US embargo that will prevent the cruise business from taking hold in Cuba as most of the ships are based out of Miami

  • Well it’s true but even if Cuba ends up in fourth place behind all those places it’s still very good compared to what it has now. But it would take so many years of building the infrastructure to handle that amount of tourists. That’s why I think they are so desperate to get the cruise ship tourists to the island. Imagine, no need for hotels or land infrastructure, only thousand and thousands of tourists who buy cigars, rum and leave after 24 hours..

  • Rigo, keep in mind that Cancun, Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Isles, the big three tourists destinations of the region have so far chosen not to see Cuba as serious competition. Why should they? While Cuba is thrilled to approach 3 million tourists for 2013, Cancun (pop. 700,000) and the surrounding Mayan Riviera will receive more than 14 million tourists over the same period. Even if Cuba should pull their heads out of their butts and get serious about tourism, it would only trigger the predatory and costly competitive responses from the big boys in the region. The Visitors Bureau of Cancun alone spent more on marketing hotels, beaches and other destinations in 2011 than all of Cuba earns from tourism.

  • The Cuban tourism industry are batteling problems on so many fronts that I wonder how long it will survive without a mayor overhaul. The last number I saw on returning tourists was around 7%. Considering that many of these are low profit yealding all-inclusive tourists that is not nearly enough to make the tourist industry profitable in the long run.
    The potential Cuba has for tourism is almost unfantomable but is hampered by so many quirky and strange rules and laws that it would make Kafka look like a pansy for complaining.

  • good article indeed…..Trinidad is one of our fav places……been there 5 times

  • Another good post, Graham! Trinidad happens to be next up on my “must visit” list, in fact.

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