Wealthy Cubans taste the good life
With the global financial crisis cutting into the tourism industry, the
government has opened the tourist hotels to all of its citizens — if
they have the money
By Esteban Israel
REUTERS, VARADERO, CUBA
Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009, Page 9
Floating, cocktail drink in hand, in the pool of a five-star hotel in
Cuba, Alexis basks in a holiday experience that for years was out of
reach for him in his own homeland.
The pastel-colored hotel buildings, the well-ordered gardens, the
turquoise waters and the perpetually smiling waiters — all just 140km
east of his home in Havana. So near, and yet for many years, so far away.
Until last year, Cuba's communist government prevented its citizens from
entering hotels reserved for hard currency-paying foreign tourists. It
argued that tourism was a strategic revenue sector and that widening
access would create inequalities in a socialist society, where most earn
inconvertible Cuban pesos.
The tourist hotels, whose services, shops and restaurants are a world
away from the hardships and shortages experienced by most Cubans,
remained largely out of bounds for ordinary citizens. This prohibition
angered most Cubans, who considered it made them second-class citizens
in their own homeland.
But when Cuban President Raul Castro took over from his ailing older
brother Fidel Castro last year, one of his first acts was to end the ban
and open all facilities to Cubans. The change was widely popular even
though most islanders still cannot afford to stay at the tourist hotels.
"Let me tell you, this is great," said Alexis, an employee of a
state-run Havana hard currency store who declined to give his full name,
as his girlfriend returned from the bar with more "mojito" cocktails — a
tropical mix of lime juice, Cuban rum, and mint leaves.
In the years immediately following the 1959 revolution, Cuban workers
were allowed into the island's premier resorts, yet the need to earn
much-needed hard currency led to the development again of a more
exclusive foreign tourism sector, especially over the last 15 years.
But the global financial crisis has taken a big bite out of Cuba's
international tourism, so the Cuban travel industry, seeking to boost
occupation in half-empty hotels, has begun offering reduced-price
package deals to Cubans.
At US$70 a night for an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, Cuba's premier
beach resort, prices are well below what foreigners pay, but still out
of reach for most Cubans struggling to make ends meet on state salaries
that average less than US$20 a month.
Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Cubans have accounted for 10
percent of occupancy at Cuba's high-end hotels this summer.
THE SWEET LIFE
The opening of a domestic market is giving more visibility to an
emerging class of wealthier Cubans who have hard currency in their
pockets and are eager to sport the colored wristbands of the fancy
The new Cuban internal tourists are professionals, technicians working
for foreign joint ventures and people receiving dollar remittances from
relatives living abroad.
"Before a foreigner would ask us about Varadero and we did not know what
to say," recalls Roberto Garcia, a 43-year-old engineer who arrived from
Havana with his family of six. "Now, if you have the money, you can do it."
Without precise official figures on revenue from internal Cuban tourism,
it is difficult to gauge just how much of a boost this new access is
giving to the cash-strapped economy.
But to the extent that Cuban tourist spending increases the flow of
dollars to the island — by, for example, family members in Miami
financing a trip to Varadero for their Cuban relatives — it is helpful,
Cuba expert Paolo Spadoni said.
"Financing from abroad might also play quite an important role," said
Spadoni, a post-doctoral fellow at Tulane University's Center for
Inter-American Policy and Research.
Some Cubans interviewed on a recent trip to Varadero said expenses were
paid by relatives visiting from the US, a flow that is up 20 percent
since US President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions in April on
Cuban-Americans visiting the island.
But Obama has made clear he will keep a 47-year-old US trade embargo on
Cuba in place for the moment to press Cuban leaders to improve human
rights and political freedoms. Havana, while agreeing to talks on
migration and other issues, has said it will not make "concessions" for
FOR THE PEOPLE
With the help of foreign investors, Cuba reluctantly developed its
tourism industry in the mid-1990s in response to the deep economic
crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief
benefactor and ally for decades.
"All the money made here is for the people," proclaims a banner at the
entrance to Varadero, a 20km peninsula of white-sand beaches lined with
This slogan reflects the long-used government argument that tourism
revenues are employed to benefit all of Cuba's people by helping to pay
for free health care and education.
Cuba has some 55,000 hotel rooms managed by the state, many in
association with foreign hotel heavyweights such as Sol Melia of Spain,
the French firm Accor or Jamaica's Sandals Resorts.
Attracted by the country's beaches and enduring revolutionary mystique,
2.3 million foreign tourists, mostly from Canada and in Europe, visited
Cuba last year, which brought the island US$2.5 billion in revenues and
made tourism one of Cuba's main sources of hard currency.
Raul Castro said in a speech earlier this month that the number of
international tourists is up, but revenues are down compared to last year.
Both numbers are expected to grow if the US Congress approves a proposed
bill that would allow all Americans to freely visit Cuba, currently
prohibited by the US embargo against the island 145km from Key West,
But for now, Cuba is looking to Cubans to keep its hotels humming, and
people like Alexis are happy to help.
"This is just fantasy. Real life starts again on Monday when we get back
to Havana," he said between sips of a last mojito as the sun set over
Taipei Times – archives (17 August 2009)