During my time in Cuba, I will be reporting on the tourist economy. It intrigues me that so much of the Cuban economy is based on or relies on tourism, especially with their lack of natural resources and exports. The Cuban government started to expand on opportunities in tourism after the Special Period following Cuba and the Soviet Union’s separation. Since then, the tourism industry in Cuba has grown extensively.
There are so many different aspects to a tourist economy. How tourists have access to things that Cubans don’t and how Cubans are trained to be hospitable shows the importance they place on tourists. The fact that they have an entirely different currency for tourist-related activities shows how strong this dependency is. The CUC, or the Cuban convertible peso, is equivalent to a US dollar and used for anything connected to tourism: hotels, taxis and the privately owned home restaurants called Paladars. The other national currency, the Cuban national peso, is what the majority of state employees are paid in and is equivalent to 1/24 of a CUC. Doctors and lawyers make less money than a taxi driver or a bartender at a popular tourist bar, such as the Floridita.
The government wants tourists to experience the best Cuba possible, as any government would, but they go out of their way to cater to tourists. Tourists are taken around to the most historical sites, and the Cuban government makes sure that those sites are cleaned up and taken care of. There is a running joke on the island about how you can tell where the Pope travelled on his last visit, because that is where the “fresh” paint is. However, even this fresh paint is starting to peel. There are also resorts and towns built solely to support all-inclusive type hotels, such as Varadero, in which tourists can go to Cuba, and not really see anything in Cuba but the beach. Their closest contact to any Cubans is the staff. Although some “travelers” would complain about the experience that tourists are getting, enough tourists are happy with their experiences that the tourist economy now makes more money than their biggest natural export, sugar.
There is no doubt the impact of tourism on the Cuban economy. In 1988, 209,200 tourists came to Cuba. In 1995, 741,700 tourists came to Cuba, and the average tourist spent $170.25 a day during their visits, with an average stay of 8.7 days. In 2010 Cuba had 2.53 million tourists, with 945,00 Canadians visiting, 174,000 British visiting and 112,000 Italians visiting. This demand has sparked several new hotel constructions; however not all construction sites have enough funding to finish, and many tourists go to older, but renovated, hotels.
I want to see if I, as a tourist, can break through this front and learn about the real Cuba. Are tourists getting a sheltered view of Cuba, or should they really not see certain things? Why does the Cuban government try so hard to impress tourists, but not their own people? I want to see how these people have adapted to an economy that caters more to people who are there for only a few days rather than the people who spend their entire lifetime in Cuba. I expect to see many of the tourist attractions that other tourists experience, but I hope to see through just the “neatness” of these places and see what they really have to offer the Cubans. Yes, the tourists take pictures of the Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana, but do Catholic Cubans go there during Christmas or to have their babies baptized? We will walk down the Malecon and take in the sea, but how many Cuban couples met there? I want an authentic experience, and I believe that figuring out the tourism industry that helps sustain their economy is one way to start. Seeing what different places that have more to offer in Cuba than just a quick stop on a tour is a goal of mine,