Tourism Economy and Habañeros

Where is Cuba now, and what’s next for Cuba? Looking at Cuba with the influences of the tourism economy and the Habañeros

By Taylor Norton and Dominque Lawrence

The Tourism Economy

One would think it would be easy to describe the current state of a country, but almost nothing is easy to describe clearly with Cuba. Cuba has had its ups and its downs, but now, as it seems as if Cuba is on its way up again, people are holding their breath. Nobody wants to look to far in to the future, or think that they are able to get comfortable with how things are today. After all, tomorrow could be completely different.

Because Cuba lacks several natural resources, the government has been struggling to support all of the Cubans adequately. With the lowering price of sugar, Cuba struggled with making money of its export. One thing that did help the economy grow, and continues to support the economy now, is the tourism in Cuba.


Our hotel, The Riviera, was built in the heyday of casinos and hotels in the 1940s and ’50s. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Some supporters of a socialist government in Cuba criticize the government for supporting so much tourism because they fear that it compromises the socialist system by allowing so many tourists, and their capitalist Western ideals, mingle with Cubans. The fear is that these Western tourists will make Cuba resort to its pre-revolutionary ways and cause gambling, drugs and prostitution that was so prevalent in the 1940s and ‘50s. However, supporters of the tourism economy say that it is because of the macroeconomic control of the economy by the socialist government that prevents any bad side effects from tourists to form into any major problems.

Stephen Wilkinson, a member of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba at London Metropolitan University, supports the tourism economy and points out that earnings from tourism overtook sugar as a foreign currency earner in 1997 when it constituted 43% of the GDP. Wilkinson also explains that when tourists spend the convertible peso, or the CUC, in government owned “Tiendas americanas”, the money goes straight into the ration system. That money goes to support the Cubans with the purchasing of things like imported powdered milk that is distributed to every Cuban child under seven and any adults over the age of 65. In other parts of the tourism industry, such as tourist sites that charge fees, transportation, food, and hotels, 60 cents of each dollar spent is redistributed into the local economy.


The Capitol building in Old Havana. There is construction on the building itself and the streets. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Wilkinson and Dr. Eusebio Leal, Havana’s chief historian, agree that tourism is a major benefactor to the economy, and Old Havana in particular is a stronghold in the industry. With the restoration of Old Havana, the colonial areas of the city have been under restoration since the 1990s. More than 300 buildings have been restored, 7,000 new homes for the Habaneros have been built, and 11,000 jobs have been created. Also hotel rooms in Havana have tripled since 1992, creating more of an appeal to tourists.

Leal, who is also the director of the restoration program of Old Havana, was invited to speak at the Brookings Institute about Cuba. Here is a link to the discussion, with highlights and the full talk:

While I was in Cuba, I could easily tell that tourism was a major industry, and it is something that Cubans do extremely well. Through paladars, personal taxis, personal tour guides, street performers and personally owned stores, they take every advantage possible to make money off of tourists to better their own economic wellbeing. From the street artist who drew caricatures for tips, to the musicians on the Malecón at night, to the two young men who drove us home from Roberto Salas’ house in their old American car, they knew where and how to make money.

Yet never once did I think of their actions as something done out of greed, but rather as something done out of a desire to better their own standards of living. For Cubans, catering to a tourism economy is just a way to get by.


One of the biggest paladars we visited was within walking distance of our hotel. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Seeing so many private enterprises while I was in Cuba was shocking. There were several paladars that did not keep it quiet that they were running a business out of their dining room. This comes from Raúl Castro’s leniency on private business now. While some paladars have remained small, there are several Cubans who have taken advantage of this leniency and bought houses (which they are now allowed to do) solely for the purpose of refurbishing them into a paladar. The best was seeing government stores and/or restaurants within direct vicinity of privately owned stores and restaurants.


Organopónico Vivero Alamar- an ogranic urban farm (Credit: Taylor Norton)

There were even tourism spots in places that are not considered traditionally tourist places. One of ours stops was at an organic farm, “Organopónico Vivero Alamar.” The farm was built in 1997 out of necessity for food and now is a thriving urban farm. It was easy to tell that they have numerous tourism groups a day, and they have accommodated the tours with personal guides and an area for groups to eat lunch. Not only do they benefit from the tours, but also they sell their food to hotels and paladars that cater to tourists.

After seeing Cuba in the present, and talking to Cubans who have experienced the past, the future doesn’t get much more clear. Yes, Raúl Castro has made many concessions that make everyday Cuban life easier, but he has allowed things before and taken that away. Not only that, but after 59 years, in 2018, the first person without the last name Castro, Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, will be the president of Cuba.

While I cannot confidently talk about the future politics of Cuba, I do know that the tourist industry will not have to put up a strong fight to keep thriving.  Yes, there are other industries that are starting to grow. There is a partnership between Cuba and Canada concerning the exportation of Nickel. Cuba has started to export its doctors to other Latin American countries, especially Venezuela. There has even been a growth in what is considered “Medical Tourism”. In which countries that have universal health care, such as Canada, can send their patients to Cuba for cheaper medical procedures.


A drawing on the wall of Hamel Alley in Havana. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

Cuba will only grow stronger with their tourism economy. They have finally figured it out, and it can only keep growing. There are so many factors to Cuba being a tourist destination: the government’s commitment to developing the industry, the size of the island, colonial architecture and the intrigue of the revolution. Not only that, but there are a variety of destination points. People who want a more educational/cultural trip can visit Old Havana, and people who want a luxury beach vacation, can visit beaches like Varadero.

There are also several place throughout Cuba that can be further developed into tourist spots: Cojimar, Viñales Valley, Miramar, organic farms, and historical sites similar to that of Hemingway’s house. These places all have a tourism presence to some extent, but using Old Havana as an example, there is always ways to grow and improve.

-Taylor Norton


I wasn’t fully sure how to attack my topic of the Habaneros in Cuba. It’s a broad task with so many different angles to get the desired info from. Before going, I did have the idea that I’d be treated a little different than the rest of my group. This idea became a reality but in different ways than what I expected. I also had theories of how they would treat tourists in an economy that thrives off of tourism. That theory was also confirmed. Though I thought I knew I what I was getting myself into, I truly had no idea. Cuba is a place where you can guess what you’ll find but not truly understand why it is the way it is or what leads people to do the things they do.


UC students with Johann (second from right), and Professor Hughes (right) on our first night in Cuba. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

On the first evening in Havana I was approached by a Habanero named Johann. I heard the catcalls I was warned about. Instead of listening to my sources and ignoring it I took a chance and looked. He approached our group and began talking in fast paced Spanish. I had to adjust and ask him to slow down but after a few minutes of communication we were finally able to talk. He spoke about his country and his city. Explaining the buildings and the people and the artwork with such passion that it was hard not to keep listening.  It showed me something about the people of their country. I learned how much pride they have. I also learned how beautiful they are within. They find beauty in anything that they talk about. It’s very rare that they focus on a negative aspect. This was confirmed in talking to our tour guide and bus driver. They all desire for you to have a good time in their country. But they want you to be informed so that any preconceptions that you may have had can be erased.


A Cuban artist making a few extra CUCs by drawing caricatures in Old Havana. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

From a tourist aspect I noticed little things. When we travel as a large group we were approached by many people for money. We were bombarded by people trying to sell things. They could see us from a mile away. I believe that our tour guide tried to shield us from some of it but I think that she also brought us into the midst of it, in some aspects, in order to help good people out or to boost her country. It just seemed as if we were sent to different restaurants that she knew were higher priced, brought us to areas of old Havana with specific artists, to the better tourist shops which happened to be owned by her family… Not to imply that she was getting over on us, just that she knows what’s appealing and plays on the strengths of her country. Things that I didn’t predict include the aggressiveness that the people have in approaching tourists. Some follow and continuously ask. Some try to make you pity them after you say no. It’s just a new world.


A street musician in Cojimar. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

When speaking to the Habaneros, I discussed music as well. I noticed that it’s a very intricate part of their daily lives just by walking through the country. There is live music at every restaurant. Music plays everywhere you’re walking. I asked them about the types of music that they listen to and about how it affects their lives. They said that Cubans don’t really discriminate music. They like it all: rock, rap, reggae, ballads, etc. Everyone enjoys it all. They just love music. Another area of which the Habaneros don’t discriminate in is religion. They are very religious people without being too bold about it. I feel that in America we tend to push our religion down the throat of others, where in Cuba they just respect that everyone has their own beliefs and likes.


A couple on the streets of Cuba. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

I also discussed relationships with Geldrys. She explained that most people don’t get married. They say that the cost is too high but they also explained that even outside of marriage, terms of marriage are used. They will date someone for a long time, spending pretty much all free time with them, ultimately living a married life without being married. They don’t spend time alone with their friends; the partner almost always goes with.

Based on the things that didn’t involve interaction, I saw how affectionate the Cuban people are. No matter where you walk there is someone kissing or hugging. I saw their genuine happiness with their way of life, the children running and screaming, the complacent way that they sit on their porches and play dominoes.


Cubans eating breakfast in front of a person’s home. (Credit: Taylor Norton)

The people of Havana are complex yet simple. It’s the simplicity of the way they live and interact on a daily basis that is so complex. Coming from a society where people keep to themselves and always strive to get more but without noble intentions, it was refreshing to visit a place that is almost a complete opposite. It’s hard to explain why Cuba has such an attraction but to me it’s just because Cuba is a place where there are truly no worries. Even when there are worries, they don’t worry about them. Hakuna Matata.

-Dominique Lawson


A young Cuban girl bathing and playing along the shoreline of the Malecón. (Credit: Taylor Norton)


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