Destination Unknown: The Future of Tourism in Cuba
Updated: Jun 13
Tourism in Cuba is ever-changing, but many wonder what the future holds.
Imagine: glittering casinos brimming with high-stakes gamblers; ballrooms alive with the rhythms of the mambo and the rumba; flirtatious showgirls, cigars, and rum around every corner. This was the tourism of the 1950s and entertainment, gambling, prostitution, and crime flourished in Havana under the direction of the Mafia. As Samuel Farber of Jacobin Magazine writes, Cuba was an "island of sin" in the eyes of most Americans. Notorious gangsters, including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, collaborated with the Batista government to construct a profitable tourism industry that welcomed around 250,000 tourists each year. For most Cubans, however, the casinos and hotels were unreachable and these playgrounds of the rich and famous served as ugly reminders of the corruption and brutality of the Batista regime. On January 1, 1959, as Batista fled the country, the hotels and casinos were the first to be looted. Today, many of these once-glamorous hotels remain scattered throughout Havana and serve as an aging reminder of what can happen when a tourism industry is developed to serve the interests of a few money-hungry individuals.
Hotel Copacabana, Havana.
Although the experience of the 1950s is still imprinted on the country, today's tourism looks very different than that of the past. Canadians and Europeans have long sought out the tropical sun and sand of the island and bird-watchers and road bikers alike will find many treasures within the inland provinces. Since President Obama relaxed travel restrictions for Americans in 2014, American travelers, airlines, travel agencies, cruise ships, and companies have seized upon the opportunities provided by this new market. Airbnb, which began operating on the island in 2015, estimates that approximately 22,000 rooms throughout Cuba have been made available for rent on their online platform.
Advertising a room for rent in El Romerillo neighborhood of Havana.
Thanks to Raul Castro's expansion of private enterprise in 2010, Reuters reports that more than 550,000 Cubans are now licensed to rent rooms, manage restaurants, drive private taxis, and more. Much of the private business growth over the past eight years has emerged in the tourism sector. Miguel Coyula, an urban planner in Havana, estimates that tourism accounts for 40 percent of the city's income. While the industry makeup may look different than it did in the 1950s, tourism is undoubtedly still where the big bucks get made.
A man, licensed as a musician, plays guitar for tips outside La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana.
Many families pool their resources to open private restaurants, or paladares, in their homes.
More than two years into the current tourism boom, many Cubans and foreigners alike are asking what the future holds. The Ministry of Tourism reports that more than 4 million tourists visited the country in 2017. What type of tourism does Cuba want to embrace? How can the industry be shaped such that it benefits all Cubans, not just a lucky few? How can policy and planning help avoid the missteps of cities like Cancun and Barcelona? Will the government remain committed to protecting Cuban ownership and control despite the temptations of foreign investment? What does climate change and sea level rise mean for sun-and-sand tourism? How might alternative tourism models support the country's transition to a new, green economy? How can sustainability, conservation, and long-term thinking be integrated as fundamental principles of the tourism sector? Do ecotourism and cultural tourism offer a more empowering, rights-based, community-driven approach than mass tourism? Many individuals and institutions, such as Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez (FANJ), are grappling with these big, complex questions. The work that FANJ does is just one example of how Cubans, despite all the unknowns, are charting the course towards responsible consumption, sustainable localities, preservation of heritage, and environmental conservation.
A cruise ship docked in Old Havana.
In Old Havana, the Malecón has become a tour bus parking lot.
Cheap, mass-produced trinkets make it hard for local artisans to compete.
Cubans and tourists share space on the streets of Old Havana.
A woman dances at Casa de Africa, Santiago de Cuba.
Waterfront hotels hint at what is to come as sea level rise intensifies, Havana.
As a traveler to Cuba, I too contemplate these big questions. As travelers and consumers, our travel choices matter. Often, our choices are political. In response to the Cuba travel warning issued by the Trump administration, a group of American NGOs, travel agents, tour operators, and other travel service providers formed RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) to promote ethical, responsible travel to Cuba. In the 1950s, mobsters and American influence determined what Cuban tourism looked like and the average Cuban suffered. In 2018, let it be the vision and passion and principles of the average Cuban that determines what Cuban tourism will look like. Let us, as Americans, support our Cuban friends and colleagues in developing the tourism that is right for their people, their environment, and their future.
Cuban tourism: speeding ahead, destination unknown.