By José Alejandro Rodríguez (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA – The easing of immigration restrictions and the development of non-state tourism in Cuba could favor the already considerable arrival here of Cubans who live abroad.
The acknowledgment last month by Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero that an unofficial tourism host industry exists on the island sent Cubans’ imagination racing. The admission was eloquent, though it did not draw much comment.
Of course, Marrero added that the growing participation of the private sector in the services given to foreign visitors – housing, transport and food, along with other quality services and sales – was not seen as “competition” but “a complement to state-run tourism.”
Nevertheless, the nascent private sector is gradually occupying personal areas of a market that was for years property of the state. At the same time, it hopes to attach itself – through contracts – to tour operators and national tourism networks.
The private hosts also hope to gain access to the wholesale supply market for non-state organizations that, according to Vice President of the Council of Ministers Mariano Murillo, will begin this year. This would guarantee a reasonable margin of profit to these microentrepreneurs, who can provide tourists with everything from housing in Varadero to a diligent taxi driver in a 1950s car.
In the end, the fact that the institutional strategies of Cuban tourism take into account the contribution of the unofficial sector says much about the changes and flexibilization made in the Cuban economy in recent months, to the point that some 400,000 foreign visitors stayed at private homes in 2012.
How many of them dined in the country’s 1,700 private restaurants, took private taxis, and bought souvenirs, crafts and artworks at the local markets? Many, no doubt.
According to Dr. José Luis Perelló Cabrera, a researcher at the Center for Tourism Studies at Havana University, the country will have to reconsider the bases upon which it measures tourism revenues in view of the new reality, such as the non-state sector and the street purchases made by foreign visitors.
The official reports from the Tourism Ministry predict an expansion in investments, particularly to diversify the product, which this year should attract more than 3 million visitors, in addition to expanding national tourism.
Because the number of tourists increases faster than the average revenues from them, Cuba needs to extract the most from their stay and to broaden its offers to them, beyond the traditional sun-and-surf tourism that most foreign tour operators promote.
As a result of the new immigration regulations, Cubans who live in Cuba have an opportunity to travel abroad, just as Cubans who live abroad can travel to their homeland. Cubans who live abroad are the second-most-important group (behind Canadians) to visit Cuba, and not only in numbers.
Tour operators will have to take into account the nostalgic impulses of that considerable segment of Cubans abroad, who prefer to spend their time here with their families in a sort of street and barrio tourism. And they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the non-state sector, the private housing facilities and local initiatives when it comes to look after those “tourists.”
Despite the ferocious trade and economic embargo imposed by the United States, many sectors of the émigré community are a source of financing for many private businesses on the island. From them come the remittances that energize the flow of domestic currency. And now that Cuba has opened its immigration gates, outgoing and incoming, this segment of financiers cannot be ignored, along with those who have already established themselves in the traditional hotel infrastructure run by the state.
Cuba has gradually eliminated its ban of Cubans who have settled abroad. If we take into account that more than 1.2 million Cubans live in Florida alone, and 51.3 percent of them arrived in the U.S. after 1990 (more than half of them after 2000), we find that the old hatreds of the very first political migration have no place in the hearts of the current economic emigrants, who maintain their ties with their homeland.
It will be very difficult for the more recalcitrant sectors of the U.S. lobby to halt the flood released by the opening of Cuba’s migration gates. In the end, that opening benefits our compatriots here and there and beyond. The entire Cuban family, without divisions.
And tourism on the island, state-run or private, will add to that homemade soup, which thickens in our memories, hearts and wallets.