Pax Christi Cuba Report: Tourism



The Cuban Government sees tourism as the engine for modernisation and it has indeed surpassed sugar as the number one source of hard currency. In 1999 tourism revenues stood at $1.3 billion. According to Cuban Tourism Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz, tourism in 1999 constituted 53% of Cuba's hard currency. Furthermore, the number of visitors has increased from 342,000 in 1990 to 1.4 million in 1998 and 1.6 million in 1999. This number fell short of the 2 million targeted by the government, but it did not seem worried. The goal of the Cuban Government is to reach 5-7 million by 2010, which would require a doubling of the current hotel capacity. According to the Government 86,000 people work directly in the tourism industry and another 300,000 workers are affected indirectly. The Government is able to reinvest the revenue it receives from tourism into other key sectors, because international aid aims to address the needs of the poorest sectors of society; and remittance from the Cuban exile community provide the average Cuban people with the dollars they need.

According to the 'Instituto Americano para el desarrollo del sindicalismo libre, AFL-CIO" in Washington, the tourist industry attracts the main part of the foreign investors and provides for a major part of the hard currency in Cuba. However, the role of the Cuban military in the tourist sector is expanding rapidly. Very often business associates of foreign investors are detachments of the Cuban military system, such as the military company Gaviota. The military companies take part in the tourist business directly, as co-owners of luxurious hotels, tourist centres and health centres, and indirectly as construction companies that take care of most of the construction works for the tourist industry. The major part of the income generated by the tourist activities of the military companies is used for military purposes such as the purchase of arms. As a consequence, Cuba spends the highest amount per capita on military defence in Latin America.

Positive Effects of Tourism

The sector of tourism is usually characterised by frequent contact between tourists and locals and generates employment in hostelry and in tourism related sectors. Mass tourism also requires specific provisions, such as modern means of communication, which could be useful for Cuban society as a whole. One would therefore expect that the foreign investments in the tourism sector would have caused a considerable impact on Cuban society and should facilitate the opening up. The renovation of Havana and other tourist areas, such as Varadero, Trinidad, Cayo Coco and Santiago, is testimony of how this economic development indeed spills over and provides benefits both directly and indirectly to the people. For example, in conversation with ordinary people one quickly learns that in these areas one can obtain things not found in the interior of the country or even on the outskirts of Havana. Most Cubans who were interviewed said that thanks to tourism they have experienced some better conditions in their everyday life.


'Tourism Apartheid'

The Government tries to limit the effect of tourism by keeping the population as separate as possible from the tourists. The tourist industry is made in a way that allows tourists to enjoy their vacation without ever leaving their isolated areas. As a result tourists often have no idea of the internal structure of society and conclude that Cubans are poor but generally happy. Some even find Cuba to be a paradise. When they ask the (almost exclusively white) personnel of a their hotel for good local places to eat or drink they are directed to state-owned venues and are driven in state-owned taxis. If they ask to visit local private establishments, they are told that these places are not up to international standards. Tourists who does not believe this argument has to resort to asking one of the lobby attendants or people on the streets, as hotels do not officially give out this information. Private accommodations, with a few exceptions, are not allowed to advertise and are not promoted by the Government. As a result the Government is able to take in most of the profit made from this industry.

Cubans are not allowed to enjoy the new tourist industry because it has become de facto the sole purview of foreigners. Through a series of physical restrictions imposed on Cubans, the government is able to maintain what is known as 'tourism apartheid'. As is generally known, Cubans are not allowed to visit most of the tourist areas or even enter a hotel; and if they do, they must be in the company of a foreigner. Cubans are even gradually losing their beaches and beautiful reefs because the Government continues to discriminate against them. The old and newly discovered beaches are being transformed into virtual Caribbean paradises that are only accessible for those who have dollars and are not Cuban. They are also not allowed to travel outside of their area of residence without official permission. Even if they had the permission, their income does not allow them to stay or eat in tourist places. One night in a hotel or dinner at a restaurant would cost them several months' income. In private, Cubans repeatedly expressed their anger at being treated like second-class citizens in their own country, and they accused the government of harassment when they are seen interacting too much with foreigners.

The vast majority of Cubans are not allowed to work in the tourist sector and many Cubans were eager to speak out about the maltreatment by the system. For example one Cuban, who makes a living by driving a (illegal) taxi, was banned from Varadero, a major tourist area, for three years. Several bicycle taxis complained of constantly being stopped by the police and asked for their identification cards.

The people that are allowed to work in the tourist sector, like in any other sector, are screened to ensure that they are not 'counter-revolutionary'. Their employment records are checked, and those with questionable allegiance are locked out of the sector. Once again the Government openly disregards ILO Convention 111 (the right to non-discrimination in appointment). But despite these problems, Cubans will do whatever it takes to get a job in the tourist industry. This desperation makes them very vulnerable, because most of the employers in the tourist sector do not apply the international recognized labour rights.
For example, a young lady who lost her newborn baby due to medical neglect was afraid to complain to authorities for fear of losing her job in the tourist industry. When asked about their labour rights most workers avoided this discussion out of fear that someone might overhear them.



In recent years, there has been an enormous brain drain from the professional and intellectual sectors to the tourism industry. Many people are abandoning their jobs as lawyers, doctors, mechanics and teachers to work in jobs that provide dollars in the hand. Because mostly less educated people are taken for these jobs, many professionals have to hide their credentials to be able to enter the foreign sectors. It is common for a tourist to find out that the man driving a bicycle-taxi is, for example, a qualified doctor or engineer. Many of these people feel frustrated and humiliated because they must work in a position well below their intellectual capacity and depend on handouts from foreigners. According to a Cuban sociologist, 'The pyramid in Cuba has been turned upside down where the uneducated are at the top in high level business positions and the educated are at the bottom forced to do hard manual labour'.

Conclusively one could state the Cuban Government tries to limit the impact of tourism on Cuban society as much as possible. Apart from some minor positive side effects of the increase of tourism, the people do not experience an opening up of Cuban society or an improvement of their living standard. With the current strategy, tourism in Cuba is mainly benefiting the Government as it hopes that economic development, coupled with strong internal control, will strengthen the regime's long-term viability. But they cannot control all tourists as they do their own people; and even Cuban society has become more critical of the measures taken by the Government.


Full text: The European Union and Cuba - Report Pax Christi