A Tourist’s Look at the Cuban Tourism Industry

Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba

Ken Hiebert*

HAVANA TIMES — According to our tour guide, the biggest source of foreign exchange for Cuba is tourism.  Another Cuban, a critic of the government, disagreed. He told me that the biggest source of foreign exchange is the export of medical personnel. Whatever the truth of this, tourism is a big part of the Cuban economy.

Our tour guide put the number of tourist arrivals each year over 2,000,000 (Wikipedia puts it near 3,000,000). If each one of these people bring $1,000.00 into Cuba, that’s over two billion dollars.

So tourism is vital to the survival of Cuba. But it is a source of tension as well. Cubans are confronted with people who may or may not be in sympathy with the Revolution, but who clearly have more money and more material goods than the average Cuban.

It must be galling to know that some places in Cuba are reserved for foreigners, even if this is part of an effort to bring in more income from tourism.

Not surprisingly, many Cubans who come into contact with tourists want to sell them something.  A few are willing to engage in scams. These are the hustlers or jineteros.

Tour group in Havana.
Tour group in Havana.

I discussed this in another posting and it provoked some angry responses.  So the meeting of Cubans and tourists is not without stress.

There are numerous sub-categories of tourism in Cuba.  You can bicycle from one end of Cuba to the other. http://travellingtwo.com/13318  There are tours for sports groups and musical groups.  http://canadacuba.com/faq/.

Some people go to Cuba to study (http://www.topuniversities.com/).  “As of 2007, 28,889 international students were studying in Cuba…”  Some of these, at least, are heavily subsidized by the Cuban government and could hardly be said to bring in foreign exchange.

According to one Cuban we spoke to, a woman who was teaching Spanish to foreign visitors, some visitors sign up for classes just to get a longer visa. She had a class of retirees from Italy as well as one person from Croatia. They were not working hard on their Spanish, preferring to hang out with their friends in sidewalk restaurants.

According to our tour guide the biggest group of tourists comes from Canada. And I thought she said the next largest group comes from Argentina, but I have been unable to confirm that.  We ran into some visitors from Brazil and even some from the US.

With certain exceptions Americans are barred from going to Cuba. But we met a family from Georgia who had been visiting in Costa Rica and came to Cuba from there. The Cubans do not stamp their passports and so they can return to the US without US Customs & Immigration being any the wiser. As long as they do not make the news or get into trouble.

In Old Havana.
In Old Havana.

Our tour guide was personable and she was willing to be quite frank. She described the tourism of the ’90s as mainly sex tourism. When a choir member asked her why it seemed that Che Guevera was more popular than Castro she started out by saying, “He’s dead.” Then she went on to tell us of his important role in the revolutionary struggle and in the first years after the revolution. She ended by saying, “…and he was good looking.”

We had an amusing experience with what I think the Cubans call “secretism.” The same Cuban man came to a series of our concerts. One of our choir leaders approached him and asked him who he was.  It turned out that he was the Cuban official in charge of our tour and he was the supervisor of our tour guide. Why they couldn’t have said that from the beginning is not clear to me. In any case we had a great time with the two of them. They heard our songs so many times that by the end of our week they were both singing with us.

Whatever stresses are placed on Cuba now could be multiplied if Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba in greater numbers. A television documentary here quoted a high ranking Cuban official to the effect that Cuba would need many more golf courses to accommodate an expanded tourist industry.

Who could have predicted that more than 50 years after the Cuban Revolution, Cuba would be dependent on tourists from wealthy countries?  Marx, Engels, Lenin, Marti, etc. did not write anything on how to deal with such a challenge. The Cubans will be obliged to figure it out for themselves.
(*) A Canadian tourist who reads HT.

9 thoughts on “A Tourist’s Look at the Cuban Tourism Industry

  • The Cubans may not have affluence like some other countries, but they more than make up for it with culture and education, something the U.S. could learn about!

  • There is a difference between an elderly lady marching from church on Sunday armed with a gladiola (Ladies in White) and a muslim extremist and bombmaker planning to bomb a shopping mall. Castro’s secret police use very AGGRESSIVE actions against opposition groups. Of course, it is possible that not everyone in Guantanamo is a terrorist and guilty of a crime but everyone involved as a Ladies in White member is innocent.

  • Yes Moses just almost on par with your buddies down in Guantanamo, as least the Cuban incumbents had a trial.

  • I heartily disagree. If by NO aggression, you mean to say that Cuba does not keep a naval carrier group on alert in the Persian Gulf like the US, then you are correct. But Cuba is on pace to unlawfully detain, arrest and ultimately even incarcerate more than 5,000 Cubans this year.whose only crime is that they disagree with their government. Most of these detentions include beatings. This applies to both men and women, young and old. Sounds very aggressive to me. Cuba “belongs” to the Castro oligarchy. Proof of this is simply given: in the last 54 years, who has made the ultimate decision with regards to Cuba’s destiny. Hint: last name rhymes with ‘gastro’.

  • In that particular group of students, one was from Croatia. Most were from Italy.

  • “One person from Croatia”, just it.
    As in “one person from China”, “one person from Russia”, “one person from the moon”…

  • While tour guides know about historical landmarks and some about Cuban history, they have little information about Cuban economics or visitors.

    The US is clearly the #2 source of visitors. 573,986 Americans visited Cuba last year. (Havana Times 7 Aug 2013 quoting Havana Consulting Group)

    Cuba’s biggest source of foreign exchange is neither export of medical personnel or overall tourism but remittances, predominantly from the US. (11 June 2013 Havana Consulting Group)

    However it does appear that the US may have been recently displaced as the #1 external food supplier to Cuba.

  • The Cuban people may have a shortfall in consumer goods and other items set against the more affluent countries around the world, but as a visitor to Cuba on a number of occasions I find Cuba a nation of NO aggression which is in control of its own destiny, do not lose this fact and control YOUR own future and do not allow once again the money grabbers in to take control of YOUR beautiful country, after all Cuba belongs to the Cuban’s irrespective of creed colour or religion.
    Moses will probably disagree if he is not on holiday.
    My passport has been stamped a number of times entering and leaving Cuba and if I am refused entry into any country, it will be their loss!!

  • As I am from Croatia I don’t understand in what context is this “one student from Croatia…” ??? What are we some rare animals or …?

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