The story of international tourism to Cuba is a complex one. From the pre-Revolution Tropicana Club and casino days to tourism’s eradication under Castro, and now back again with predominantly Havana and all-inclusive resort promotions, the island’s relationship to international tourism has constantly evolved. Cuba received more than three million international tourists in 2014, more than any other year in its history. This trend shows no sign of slowing down as arrivals for January 2015 outpaced January 2014 by 16%. Most of these tourists come from Canada and Europe, but as you might have heard, Cuba has another huge market entering the mix.
The smoothing of relations between the United States and Cuba nations may allow for a massive influx of American tourists in the near future, but for now this is uncertain. With the potential influx of tourists from the United States, will Cuba develop a sustainable tourism model a la Costa Rica, or will they choose to emulate the all-inclusive route so popular throughout the rest of the Caribbean?
Cuba has already developed a massive all-inclusive resort enclave, Varadero, on the northern coast a couple hours east of Havana. This 20-mile strand of beach is home to many joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign companies, and only a small percentage of profits ever benefit the Cuban people. Massive all-inclusive resorts, although becoming more sustainability-focused, have a long history of being unsustainable. Profits depart destinations, environmental degradation occurs, and local traditions are shuttered or commoditized, leading to varying degrees of tourism imperialism.
Cuba has developed a few other all-inclusive resorts outside of Varadero, but an overwhelming majority of the island still lends itself to sustainable tourism development. By choosing to move forward with the sustainable tourism model instead of further developing mass all-inclusive resort tourism, four key benefits to Cuba arise:
1. Protection of natural areas:
Cuba has 263 protected natural areas that combine to make up over 20% its territory. Promoting ecotourism to these parts, while maintaining safe environmental limits, can funnel more money into the conservation and enhancement of these sites or encourage the designation of even more protected areas. Many travelers are seeking an experience beyond the typical sun, sea, and sand of mass tourism. A visit to Cuba’s protected areas would create this opportunity while helping to develop the ever-elusive sense-of-place that destinations desire to create.
Costa Rica has used this sustainability-focused approach to become the ecotourism epicenter of Central America, if not the world. Sustainable ecotourism has become a dominant part of their destination image, and they have well-preserved resources that will sustain their tourism economy long into the future. Why couldn’t Cuba become the king of Caribbean ecotourism? Cuba and Costa Rica have similar natural attractions including breathtaking mountains, extraordinary biodiversity, and pristine reefs and wetlands. No other Caribbean island has an array of natural assets to match Cuba.
Developing a sustainable tourism model brings an incentive to keep these areas protected long into the future. Solimar International has had success implementing sustainable solutions in a similar situation in the Dominican Republic, encouraging the protection of biodiversity through tourism with small and medium-sized businesses in the face of mass tourism resort development.
2. Preservation of cultural heritage:
In addition to amazing natural areas, Cuba has unique cultural tourism assets as well. UNESCO has designated an astounding seven sites on the island as cultural World Heritage Sites. Perhaps most importantly, these are spread throughout the island and only one is in Havana. Havana will never lack for tourists and distributing visitors throughout the rest of the country will be key to developing in a sustainable way. Linking these UNESCO sites and other cultural attractions together will encourage visitors to stay longer while creating a more authentic experience than all-inclusive resort travel. These outcomes fit the sustainable tourism model as profits would increase due to longer stays while spreading beyond the resorts and Havana.
The socialist history of Cuba is a tourism asset in and of itself. Even as Cuba eschews some of this philosophy, visitors will remain fascinated by the stories of Fidel, Ché, and the Revolution. Marketing these already-present Revolution-themed attractions instead of further promoting mass resort tourism builds upon Cuba’s unique cultural assets without further degradation of the natural or cultural environment, a possible outcome of building more resorts. This way, Cuba can show their cultural heritage while further developing the authentic sense-of-place that encourages repeat visits and promotes a positive destination image.
Cultural tourism could become a more powerful force throughout the island and is by no means limited to socialist history or UNESCO-designated sites. Baseball, music, dance, art, culinary traditions, agriculture, and many other aspects contribute to the island’s distinct cultural identity. By moving visitors and profits beyond the resorts and Havana, Cubans have more incentive to simply act naturally and be themselves instead of putting on tacky, commoditized representations of themselves at the all-inclusives. Solimar International has previously demonstrated how tourism can be a catalyst for protecting cultural heritage while increasing local revenue in Fez and Marrakech, Morocco.
3. Support for the Entrepreneurial Movement sweeping the Island
The combination of Cuba’s natural and cultural assets can be integrated into an immensely marketable sustainable tourism arsenal. In theory, this sounds great, but what is the vehicle for achieving this goal? One option would be to facilitate the formation of private enterprise and entrepreneurial development, which has led to innovation, efficiency, and coordination in the tourism sector in other destinations. In recent years, the Cuban government has slowly integrated private enterprise into the economy. This has been undertaken largely to reduce dependence upon the government, which can no longer supply everyone with jobs or a livable wage, and to bring black market activities into the formal economy.
As private enterprise becomes more viable, competition will lead to innovation and increased efficiency in the tourism industry. The Cuban people, who are quite resilient and creative, have actually had to develop a sort of entrepreneurial spirit over the years to overcome economic hardships. In Cuba this concept is known as “resolver,” which literally means “to resolve” and can be understood as something along the lines of “we’ll figure it out,” or “we’ll do what we have to do.” Deep neighborhood and family networks have evolved out of this process. These networks have come together to solve problems time and time again. Isn’t that what entrepreneurs do?
Cuban citizens view tourism as an engine for enterprise creation, mainly in the forms of casas particulares (rooms available for tourists to rent in private homes), paladares (small, privately-owned restaurants) and transportation services. Patronizing these businesses undoubtedly leaves the impression of an authentic experience in the minds of travelers while simultaneously contributing to the well-being of local residents via increased income. However, categories of legal self-employment are still restricted in Cuba. For example, Cuban citizens cannot be self-employed as tour guides, although the government has shown a recent affinity for being more responsive than in the past. Further developing private enterprise in tourism disseminates the benefits of tourism beyond the top level, reduces leakage, and creates competition. Competition is vital to innovation and a constantly evolving tourism product.
Solimar International has experience in facilitating new sources of income for people via small, entrepreneurial tourism ventures, specifically in Mali. As Cubans transition from government-provided jobs, they will continue to see the tourism industry as a viable alternative. Solimar International’s expertise in aiding small tourism businesses could prove to be valuable.
4. Improved well-being of Cuban citizens
As sustainable tourism catches on, Cubans will have access to more jobs and careers, higher earning potential, cross-cultural interaction, and new skills and training. A successful tourism industry with a healthy private sector component reduces dependence upon the government while empowering Cuban citizens to forge their own path. If Cuba can develop tourism similarly to the Costa Rican model, the results will be well-maintained natural areas and cultural sites which will provide jobs and careers well into the future. All of these developments contribute to improved financial security and overall well-being for Cuban citizens.
I see the potential for these four benefits to “spiral up” to create a sustainable tourism model in Cuba. If private enterprise flourishes, resident well-being increases, thus providing further incentive to protect natural and cultural heritage. Cuba has fantastic natural and cultural attractions, and once Cuban citizens gain more sovereignty in the business development process, the potential for innovative and sustainable tourism products is infinite. Of course the government will still be a key figure in this development, but it can help by enforcing environmental regulations and supporting programs to preserve cultural identity. Ideally, the public and private sectors work together to ensure that Cuba’s tourism growth happens in a sustainable way.
During my studies at East Carolina University’s M.S. Sustainable Tourism program, I worked with Dr. Carol Kline on my M.S. thesis and a subsequent publication in Tourism Management. My research examines the relationship between private enterprise and tourism development in Cuba. I traveled to Cuba as part of a research team to interview residents about these topics. Out of this process came a realization that this is a critical time in history for Cuba’s tourism industry. The possible influx of U.S. tourists only adds to the importance and immediacy of the need for Cuba to choose a sustainable path of tourism development. These decisions will determine the long-term success of tourism on the island and who benefits. I joined Solimar International, one of the leading sustainable tourism development firms with the hope that combining my knowledge of Cuba with their experience can help Cuba follow the right path to development.