HAVANA TIMES — Safety is one of Cuba’s greatest tourist attractions, especially when we compare this to other countries within the region, where violent crimes have increased even above the Latin American average, which are already high enough as it is.
The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica and Suriname are some of the countries that have the highest crime rates in the Caribbean, according to a study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, based on a recent regional survey.
The most dreadful thing, though, is that violent crimes are on the increase. While the assault and threat rate stands at 4.7% in Latin America, this shoots up to 6.8% in the Caribbean. A third of the interviewees stated that they had lost someone close to them to violence.
It’s very unusual that these crimes affect the 26 million visitors who go to the region every year, but they find themselves forced to stay within tourist zones a lot of the time, a kind of luxury ghetto, where they can only imagine the country that has taken them in.
I have spoken to some tourists and one of the greatest surprises they have when they arrive in Cuba, is the freedom of movement that they can enjoy here. They are surprised at the fact that they can go out at any time of day or night without running the risk of being assaulted or attacked.
Not too long ago, we published an article about a Mexican woman’s impressions when she came to Cuba as a tourist. I also met some Venezuelan pilots who were amazed that they could walk through the city’s streets at night… unarmed.
It could be said that Mexico and Venezuela are quite extreme cases as they suffer high levels of violence but the truth is that even some US tourists can’t believe that they can sit on the Malecon seawall in the early hours of the morning without the fear of being attacked or assaulted.
In their case, this feeling is reinforced by the vision created in their own country about Cuba. They bring such low expectations that it’s wonderful when they discover they can move freely about, meeting a happy and open people, eating in decent restaurants and connecting up to the WIFI on the Malecon.
Of course, there are also complaints. They have to wait hours for their baggage at the airport, nearly as long as they do to be served in restaurants. Standards of cleanliness in some hotels leave a lot to be desired and the constant cancellation of “Cubana Airlines” flights causes huge annoyance among travelers.
Cuba still has a lot to learn about how to treat tourists. Turning off the air conditioning in airports or turning it on but keeping it at the bare minimum, is saving a few cents but losing millions at the same time. Every visitor that returns to their country speaking badly about Cuba will influence everyone around them.
The good news is that the Tourism Ministry has announced that it will create a committee, headed by the minister, Manuel Marrero, where eight other ministries will also take part. If this sector really becomes a motor for the economy, it needs to be firmly linked to the rest of the carriages.
A comprehensive vision should include sea, air and land transport; the airport; customs; immigration; culture, health, activities outside hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, day-trips, nature parks and theme parks; beer and food production, as well as other consumable goods.
There’s no doubt about it, there’s still a lot to fine tune in order to make Cuba’s tourism industry as efficient as the ones in other tourist countries and regions. The advantage of arriving to the tourism scene late is that there isn’t a lot left to invent, all Cuba has to do is study what has worked and hasn’t worked in those countries which have had the best and worst results.
Along the path to improving its services, Cuba shouldn’t lose sight of its current charms and the greatest one it has, which differentiates it from the rest of the Caribbean, is public security. It might seem like an objective they’ve already reached, but maintaining it is just as difficult as achieving it.
Tourism is a dairy cow which gives milk to the macro-economy and also to private restaurants and bars, taxi-drivers and their mechanics, rental owners, craftsmen, guides, waiters, cooks, fishermen, farmers, building and maintenance brigadas, and all of their employees.
As well as its indirect benefits, tourism contributes many millions of USD which travel directly into the Cuban people’s pocket. The number of Cubans who receive a better income thanks to this sector is growing every day, so maintaining a peaceful environment should be in everyone’s best interests.