Varadero Heritage Threatened by Tourism

By Dalia Acosta

Varadero photo by Ihosvanny.

HAVANA TIMES, March 2 (IPS) — Important architectural works from the Modern movement in Cuba appear to be doomed as a result of the expansion of massive hotel complexes, which threaten to take over the landscape in Varadero, this country’s most famous beach resort.

The alert was first sounded in 2010 when rumors began to spread about the demolition of the Hotel Internacional and the Hotel Club Cabañas del Sol, two 1950s structures located in a prime area of Varadero, which is 140 km east of Havana, in the province of Matanzas.

Two statements issued by the ICOMOS National Committee, the Cuban branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in May and November have received no response, architect Jorge Fornés told IPS.

Fornés is chair of the National Committee of ICOMOS, an independent international non-governmental organization of professionals dedicated to the conservation of the world’s historic monuments and sites, which works closely with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

“Independently of any decisions, I have no doubt as an architect that it is not necessary to eliminate something valuable to build something new,” he said. “If there is interest in preserving a valuable piece of heritage, there is always a way to do so,” he added, citing cases like the conservation of the colonial fortifications in Old Havana.

Nor have demands from intellectuals and academics, mainly circulated by email, received an official public response from representatives of the Tourism Ministry or coverage by the media. An employee at the Hotel Internacional told IPS, “The decision has already been reached.”

“There are contradictory versions,” Roberto Fernández García, a poet who lives in Varadero, said in an email message that sums up the results of his inquiries and those of others interested in the case, posed to the Tourism Ministry’s provincial authorities.

Tourism Ministry officials in Matanzas said “The Hotel Internacional, which opened on Dec. 24, 1950, is very old, small and old-fashioned, with few rooms, and no longer meets the requirements of today’s tourism,” according to Fernández García’s message.

Varadero photo by Ihosvanny.

He said the 161-room hotel would be demolished to build, on the same site, a modern 800-room structure. Cabañas del Sol, other tourist installations from the first half of the 20th century — when architects of the Modern movement were seeking a fresh expression of the Cuban identity — and buildings in the old city in Varadero are also apparently facing the same fate.

A different explanation

But the Matanzas office of the historian offered a different explanation. According to a message circulated by the Cofradía de la Negritud, a non-governmental association of black people, in this case the response was that “The hotel’s plumbing system is in a state of collapse, so it is more economical to demolish it and build from scratch, than to repair it.”

But tourism authorities did not mention poor structural condition to the hotel’s employees. “They told us the hotel would be demolished because of environmental regulations, and that it was useless to turn to Eusebio Leal to save the hotel,” one worker told IPS.

Supposedly Leal, a national lawmaker and the head of the ICOMOS National Committee, would be unable to do anything to preserve a structure built on a sand dune, like more than 100 other buildings and thousands of meters of walls and fences that will have to be demolished, according to environmental studies.

Alfredo Cabrera, director of the office in charge of the management of Varadero’s beaches, had ensured IPS in 2007 that before a decision was reached about a demolition, his office took into account “the cultural heritage or historical value of the structure,” and whether it served “an important social function.”

An employee at the Varahicacos ecological reserve, meanwhile, who a few years ago experienced the “breakdown” of the management of that protected area due to the construction of a mega-hotel, told IPS that in the case of the Hotel Internacional, environmental and heritage interests should be reconciled.

Sources close to the Tourism Ministry confirmed that the Hotel Internacional has reached an agreement with another country to build a modern hotel, similar to so many others built in Varadero in recent years near the Internacional and Cabañas del Sol hotels.

Varadero photo by Ihosvanny.

Half of the over two million tourists who visit Cuba every year go to Varadero, which has more than 18,000 rooms in 49 hotels on 22 kilometers of beach.

The municipality of 26,600 people, which includes Varadero and two neighboring towns, received a record of more than 31,000 visitors in one day in February, in the context of the expansion of resort tourism in Cuba.

“This is a preview of what could be about to hit us on a much, much larger scale, because the country needs money urgently,” Mario Coyula, winner of the National Architecture Prize in 2001, told IPS, without directly mentioning the complicated economic situation the country has been in since the early 1990s.

Above and beyond architectural questions, Coyula, an architect and urban designer, pointed out that “for many people these two hotels are distinctive features of the local landscape, which are fast disappearing in Varadero, as is coexistence (between the tourists) and the local population, which is increasingly marginalized and isolated.”

Architects, artists, writers and journalists who have called for saving what is left of the Varadero of the 1950s point to the enormous potential for the promotion of cultural tourism, with an offer that differs from “the standardized sun and sand tourism in all-inclusive resorts” that can be found on any Caribbean island.

“I see this as a natural result of excessive centralization, which stands in the way of dealing with thousands of small and medium investors who could generate more stable and balanced wealth,” Coyula said. “And the most important thing: small-scale investors cannot impose their own conditions.”


2 thoughts on “Varadero Heritage Threatened by Tourism

  • April 5, 2011 at 8:05 am
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    !Que lastima! I remember attending a floor show, along with other members of the Venceremos Brigade, in the nightclub of the Internacional in December of 1969 or January of 1970. Amongdst floor show’s highlights were the usual bejeweled and scantily-clad dancers plus a singer who crooned Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” in both English and Spanish! What next will be knocked down to be replaced by another soulless five-star malignant stalagtite? (My beloved Pullman, no doubt?!)

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