Budget Vacations in Touch with Nature

Patricia Grogg

Foto: Ihosvanny

HAVANA TIMES, July 7 (IPS) — To survive the summer heat and enjoy restful vacations in natural settings, the government’s network of cabin resorts is a popular alternative among families in Cuba, few of whom can afford the high cost of hotels, which until 2008 were off-limits to Cubans.

Created three decades ago, the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s so-called “popular camping program” – the national vacation resort system – has been managed since 2008 by the state Popular Camping Entrepreneurial Group. Last year, 730,000 Cuban tourists stayed at 84 cabin resorts nationwide, according to the National Statistics Office (ONE).

“Compared with vacation options that charge in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, the only legal hard currency on the island), it is cheaper, because you pay in national Cuban pesos. But in comparison with average wages, it is definitely an expense the family has to save up for,” Luis Alberto Valdés, a 32-year-old biologist, told IPS.

“It provides value for money, but it is not cheap. One cannot pay for a camping cabin vacation with what’s left over from a month’s wages,” said Valdés, who has fond memories of his first season at a summer camp in 1991, with his friends from secondary school.

On the other hand, very few people in Cuba can afford to stay at a hotel. “It’s practically impossible,” said Teresa Castro, a 58-year-old retiree. The unwritten rule banning Cubans from staying at hotels that cater to international tourists was eliminated in 2008.

Average wages are 448 pesos a month, equivalent to about 22 dollars. Only people who receive large remittances from relatives abroad, work for foreign companies or run successful independent businesses can afford rates between 45 and 112 dollars a night in Cuban hotels, Castro said.

But while they may be few and far between, there are people with this kind of buying power in this socialist island nation. Last year, local residents spent over three million nights in hotels, and of this number 93,000 were at top-level five-star hotels, according to ONE.

Castro, who sometimes works in the private sector, has been an avid visitor to the cabin resorts since the “popular camping program” was founded three decades ago, when she took her three small children to the summer camps, she told IPS. More recently, she has frequently stayed at the Villa “Los Cocos” resort in Jibacoa, about 60 km from Havana.

“It’s fairly accessible, and safe. It has a quiet, welcoming atmosphere,” she said. But it is difficult to make a reservation through one of the 151 offices throughout the country. “After standing for ages in a long line, you might be left without a reservation. There aren’t enough places for all the people who want to go.”

The summer camps used to be run by the Young Communist League (UJC), but in March 2010 they were transferred to the Tourism Ministry. The “popular camping program” also has four international villas, the Canimar River Tourist Park in Matanzas, about 100 km east of the capital, and the Cubamar Travel Agency.

The transfer was carried out as part of the reorganization of the Cuban economy launched by the government of President Raul Castro in 2008, Osvaldo Prieto, deputy head of “Arenas Negras”, the cabin resort in Isla de la Juventud, the second largest Cuban island, told IPS.

Previously, reservations covered only programs and activities run by the UJC. Since the changeover, sales and access to the cabins have been liberated and are carried out without the intervention of middlemen.

The facilities have also been upgraded. Formerly, they provided basic accommodation, and access to beaches or rivers, swimming pools, dance floors, recreational and game rooms, television lounges, horseback rides, transport, trekking and hiking.

Nowadays the cabins also have air conditioning and mini-bars. Practices dating back to the early days of the program have also been reinstated, such as staying overnight in a tent in a remote area accessible by hiking. This option was introduced in 2011, in the Litoral Norte of Havana.

“Arenas Negras” (black sands), the only cabin resort on Isla de la Juventud, is on Bibijagua beach, unique because of its dark sand.

The 27 cabins, painted in tropical colors, can accommodate 138 people. Most of the visitors are from Isla de la Juventud itself, although reservations can be made from anywhere in Cuba. Accommodation for a family of four costs 64 pesos a day, not including meals, which can be purchased at the restaurant-cafeteria.

“The rooms have mini-bars and air conditioning, which makes them more like hotel rooms,” said Prieto, who pointed out that over the last 10 years; the only affordable option for summer vacations for the vast majority of the Cuban population has become much more comfortable.

The cabins at the summer camps used to be made of wood and had tiled, or sometimes thatched, roofs, Prieto said. Now they have private bathrooms, which used to be rare in the cabin resorts, he said.