Authoritarian regimes often fear ideological 'contamination' by
tourism, but there's little evidence holidaymakers engender democratic
About Webfeeds October 11, 2007 8:30 PM
At the Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort and Spa in Varadero, Cuba's
heavily-developed and most familiar tourist location, there is plaque
on a wall in the main function room, which reads, in Spanish: "To
protect and promote the values of the revolution for the workers is
the primary task of the tourism sector."
This sums up the edginess with which Castro's regime regards foreign
holidaymakers. On the one hand, inward investment by hotel owners and
expenditure by foreign visitors provides an escape route from the
economic hardships that Cuba has suffered since the collapse of the
Soviet Union. On the other, the Cuban leadership suspects that
travellers, especially the high-spending Canadians who provide a major
slice of the market, may bring about what Washington has never been
able to achieve – the alienation of the people from their rulers.
On the other side of the ideological fence, the idea that tourism can
itself be a revolutionary force has been deployed by the Orient-
Express group to justify its presence in Burma. In a press release
sent to the trade magazine Meetings & Incentive Travel, which I edit,
Orient-Express stated: "Orient-Express is an apolitical organisation
which takes the view, based on experience, that opening up countries
to tourism and interaction between ordinary people is a positive move,
which can be a catalyst for long-term social change."
But the fears of Cuba's Committee for the Defence of the Revolution
and the optimism of Orient-Express are equally misplaced.
Someone who knew all about the willingness of tourists to turn a blind
eye to totalitarianism was Generalissimo Franco, who charged his
tourism and propaganda minister, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, with the
responsibility of luring holidaymakers to the country in the 1960s.
The result was the creation of the Costas, the "El Pub" concept, and a
plethora of ersatz flamenco performers.
In Portugal, too, in the 1960s, the British bucket-and-spade brigade
showed no compunction in sunning themselves on the Algarve during the
rightwing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. From Tito's
Yugoslavia to Greece under the regime of the colonels, authoritarian
governments have proved no disincentive to sun-seekers.
As for the opportunities for self-advancement offered to the employees
in the tourism and hospitality sector, there is no reason for Cuba's
leaders to worry that the presence of five-star hotels will create an
affluent and politically ambitious middle class. Most of the jobs in
the hospitality sector are menial and poorly paid, and the
shareholders of international chain hotels are keen to funnel any
profits into their own sybaritic lifestyles, rather than encouraging
the enrichment of indigenous populations.
Travellers who wish to drink a daiquiri in the same Havana bar as
Hemingway or follow the footsteps of the young Eric Blair in Burma can
only consult their conscience and act accordingly. But if you believe
that you can help free the world from tyranny while taking a break
from your daily routine, you are harbouring an illusion that benefits
only those who seek to preserve their repressive status quo.