Tourism in Cuba is an industry that generates more than 2 million arrivals per year and is one of the island’s main sources of income. With its favourable climate, beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history, Cuba has long been an attractive destination for tourists. “Cuba maintains 253 protected areas, 257 national monuments, seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seven natural biosphere reserves and 13 wildlife sanctuaries, among other non-tourist areas.”
Since Cuba was the closest Spanish colony to the United States until 1898, it continued to benefit from large investments, the creation of industries and travel in the first half of the twentieth century. The proximity and close relations with the United States also allowed the Cuban market economy to flourish relatively quickly. When relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after the Cuban Revolution and the resulting expropriation and nationalisation of businesses, an embargo cut the island off from its traditional market and imposed a travel ban on American citizens visiting Cuba. The tourism industry fell to a record low in the two years after Castro came to power. Unlike the United States, Canada normalised relations with Cuba in the 1970s, and Canadians increasingly travelled to Cuba for holidays. About one-third of visitors to Cuba per year (as of 2014) are Canadians. The Cuban government has softened its nationalisation policy and has allowed private companies since 2011. It is also pursuing revitalisation programmes to boost tourism. The United States resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015 and the tourism industry is expected to benefit greatly from the normalisation of relations with the United States in the near future.
Until 1997, contacts between tourists and Cubans were de facto prohibited by the communist regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, and the resulting economic crisis known as the “Special Period”, the Cuban government launched a massive programme to restore old hotels, preserve old pre-communist American cars and restore some of Havana’s streets to their former glory, as well as building resorts to boost the tourism industry in order to bring much-needed funds to the island. To ensure that international tourism was isolated from the state-isolated Cuban society, it was to be promoted in enclave resorts where tourists would be separated as much as possible from Cuban society, so-called “enclave tourism” and “tourist apartheid”. By the late 1990s, tourism had overtaken Cuba’s traditional export industry, sugar, as the country’s main source of income. Visitors come mainly from Canada and Western Europe and tourist areas are heavily concentrated in Varadero, Cayo Coco, the beach areas north of Holguin and Havana. The impact on Cuba’s socialist society and economy has been significant. In recent years, however, Cuban tourism has declined due to the economic recession, escalating conflicts and fears of foreign investment, and internal economic restrictions. Since reopening to tourism in the mid-1990s, Cuba has not achieved the expected growth, but has experienced a relatively weak restoration and slow growth. The lack of foreign investment has also had a negative impact. Since then, the Dominican Republic has overtaken Cuba in terms of tourism, new developments and investment.
Tourism according to sectors
In addition to the traditional income from tourism, Cuba also attracts health tourists, who bring about $40 million in annual revenue to the Cuban economy. Cuba has been a popular destination for health tourism for over 20 years. In 2005, more than 19,600 foreign patients travelled to Cuba to undergo a variety of treatments, including eye surgery, neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, and orthopaedic treatments. Many patients come from Latin America, although medical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, often called night blindness, has attracted many patients from Europe and North America.
Some have complained that foreign “health tourists” who pay in dollars receive better quality care than Cuban citizens. Former leading Cuban neurosurgeon and dissident Dr Hilda Molina says the central revolutionary goal of free, quality medical care for all has been eroded by Cuba’s need for foreign currency. Molina says that after the economic collapse known in Cuba as the “special period”, the Cuban government put in place mechanisms to turn the medical system into a for-profit enterprise, leading to inequality in the quality of health services between Cubans and foreigners.
Cuba is a rich mixture of different cultures of Europeans, Africans and indigenous people. This is reflected in Cuban architecture, music, dance, food and handicrafts. Cuba is implementing programmes to renovate its heritage sites, such as the colonial buildings in Havana and Matanzas.
Although Fidel Castro tried to eliminate prostitution after coming to power, the gap between typical Cuban wages (less than US$1 per day) and the purchasing power of foreign tourists lures some Cuban women, including minors, into prostitution. However, allegations of widespread sex tourism have been downplayed by Cuban Justice Minister Maria Esther Reus. According to the Miami Herald, prostitution is not illegal in Cuba, but procuring a prostitute for others is prohibited. The age of sexual consent on the island is 16. According to a Canadian government travel advisory website, “Cuba is actively working to prevent child sex tourism, and a number of tourists, including Canadians, have been convicted of offences related to the seduction of minors under 16. The prison sentences range from seven to 25 years.” In Cuba, it is illegal to import, possess or produce pornography.
While the growth of tourism has benefited Havana economically, it has also had some negative side effects. One of these side effects is the revival of sex tourism in the city. Sex tourism was a central part of the tourism industry before the revolution. However, after 1960, prostitution on the island was essentially eradicated due to government initiatives and a significant decline in demand as tourism was minimised. However, the practice of prostitution increased with the development of tourism in the 1990s. The demographic profile of tourists (the overwhelming majority are men between the ages of 25 and 60) is an important indicator of the existence of prostitution. In addition, websites and magazines such as Playboy have highlighted the potential for heterosexual and homosexual sex tourism. According to Trumbull, many prostitutes engage in the practice out of economic necessity, but they do not work under repressive conditions, and many prostitutes in contemporary Havana see this work as a way to earn a better living than if they were working in open jobs in the city. So today’s prostitution is different in this respect from the sex tourism of the 1950s.
Social impacts of tourism
As tourism plays an increasingly important role in the economy, a large percentage of young people migrate to resorts in search of jobs in the tourism industry. Many of them, working in menial jobs, can earn more from tips than from professional work. This creates an economic and social divide in Cuba between those who are employed in the tourism industry and those who are not.
Tourist Hotels and Cuban Hotels
Between 1992 and 2008, some hotels and resorts were open only to foreign tourists in order to obtain much-needed hard currency, leading to accusations of “tourist apartheid”. This policy was reversed by the Cuban government in 2008.
The Cuban tourism policy of the early 1990s, driven by the government’s urgent need to earn hard currency, had a major impact on the underlying egalitarianism espoused by the Cuban Revolution. Two parallel economies and societies quickly emerged, separated by their access to the newly legalised US dollar. Those who had access to dollars through their contact with the lucrative tourism industry suddenly found themselves at a distinct financial advantage over professional, industrial and agricultural workers.
In order to ensure the isolation of international tourism from Cuban society, tourism was to be promoted in enclave resorts where tourists would be separated from Cuban society as much as possible. This idea was not lost on the average Cuban citizen, and the government’s tourism policy was quickly labelled “enclave tourism” and “tourist apartheid”.
In 1992, as Cuba entered a period of severe economic austerity, Fidel Castro defended the newly introduced policies in a speech to the Cuban National Assembly. He described the measures as an economic necessity that had to be maintained as long as the country needed foreign currency. According to Castro, the government is considering “formulas” that would allow Cubans to use certain tourist facilities as a reward for outstanding work, but he believes that allowing Cubans to access facilities at the expense of paying foreign tourists would ultimately be a counterproductive measure for the economy.
Until 1997, contact between tourists and Cubans was de facto forbidden, and Cubans seen in contact with tourists were considered potential thieves by the police. Complaints from global human rights groups and the upcoming visit of the Pope have helped to reverse this situation, although such contact is still frowned upon. Police often demand identity checks on all Cubans seen in contact with tourists. Identification of tourists is usually not checked unless the tourist is dark-skinned and mistaken for a Cuban. Despite the restrictions, average Cubans make a living from the Cuban tourism industry and many simply see the policy as unavoidable.
Raúl Castro’s government ended the policy of restricting certain hotels and services to tourists in March 2008. In addition to Cubans being officially allowed to stay in any hotel, this change also opened up access to previously off-limits areas such as Cayo Coco. In practice, however, access remains very limited, as the vast majority of Cubans do not have access to the hard currency needed to stay in these hotels.