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Impressions of Tourism in Cuba

Image: Cuba impressions

Being at a conference in Cuba was the first time I had been into the Tropics. It was also the first time seeing a country in which events had been crisis-point news when I was at school, back in 1959-62. So it gave me plenty of my own preconceptions to be re-examined.

The Canadian organisers of what they called an EduTourism Conference are a new grouping. They set out to promote educational tourism studies. They are mainly from a business training background, which was reflected in the range of speakers chosen. However, they had seen my web site and got in touch earlier this year. After some discussion and necessary paperwork for the Cuban immigration people I prepared a presentation and travelled over there. I'm glad to say it was well received. The conference produced good discussions and lively insights and was backed up by some highly enjoyable social events and entertainments. There was time to travel into the old city centre of Havana and, with my ex-colleague still teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, Stuart Moss, down to the Bay of Pigs with its varied attractions and history.

The paper work to get in to Cuba was rather complex, and then it turned out that to get an entrance visa was a formality and could have been done for free on arrival in Havana - apparently. The embassy web site was very clear - visas had to be obtained and the documentation supplied, or else, no entry. I took the postal option via the London Embassy, which cost me 30. When Stuart and I each arrived at the Cuban immigration desk in Havana we found people filling in forms for free and going straight through.

The place was reasonably hot though cloudy and the tail end of hurricane Tomas had blown up a few winds - not all that much, but waves crashing over the breakwater in front of the hotel meant flooded roads. One night, someone picked us up to go to a restaurant and the car had to drive through several inches of water as it set off. At the end of my week there were two days' hot, bright-sunny weather when the sun-blocker was really needed, so that was more like the tropical experience.

The people are very mixed in all kinds of senses - ethnically, socially and economically, which made for interesting and varied experiences. Everyone we met was very friendly. That included them being very welcoming towards a US academic who was taking part. I'm sure there are people not keen on these relatively rich tourists who stay in 5* hotels that the Cubans can't use - there is a separate currency, the convertible peso, needed for touristy places. Cubans get national pesos as well as some convertible pesos. There will be resentments. Tourists get a little hassled, but so long as you say "no thank you" they go away immediately - just a few exceptions. Since health, welfare and education are all free and of high standard (100% literacy rate, very good medical facilities whoever you are) then I suspect begging - which goes on - is by people with particular problems. Selling cheap souvenirs is aimed at extra income towards what little luxuries, or additional basics, are wanted. I met an elderly pensioner and her husband who offered me plastic necklaces or coins with Ché Guevara on them. They weren't hassling and they spoke a little English and were delightful to sit with while I awaited a shuttle bus back to the hotel.

Image: Cuba impressions 02

Our base was the Melià Cohiba, described in one guide book as the best-resourced hotel in Cuba. It has good guest and meeting rooms, five restaurants, a night club and shops. It even had toilet rolls, which most lavatories in restaurants and attractions did not have. Many had no toilet seat either, just the cold basin to sit on. Taking your own toilet paper was the rule. Someone said that as a poor country it wasn't surprising. As a place with high health standards, I was surprised. The wash basin plug is also a rare animal in Cuba, with just a few of them in captivity in the posh hotels.

Besides the fun and frolics of the conference - well, fun, anyway - we had dinner in the night club one evening, followed by the stage show. A 12-piece swing/jazz band performed. There was a male singing group performing a capella, scat and accompanied songs. A female singer followed who belted out numbers very professionally but - like them all - too loudly for my taste, using amplifiers. Then the Havana Cafe's own Latin Folk Ballet performed. This dancing troupe numbered a couple of dozen. They were incredible. Not being an attendee of night clubs I might not be the best judge. But for professionalism, energy, speed, singing and dancing ability through an hour, or whatever it was, of inventive performance I think they would have taken some beating.

On the next night we watched dancers (some of the same group, possibly) put on a water ballet show at the outdoor swimming pool. They danced around the edge then jumped in fully clothed and danced and swam in the pool, hopped out, pirouetted on 'dry land' then dived back in. Skilful, but to my eyes I have to say rather odd.

Image: Cuba impressions 03

Another evening we ate as a group in an open air restaurant in Cathedral Square. Good food (as it virtually always was during our visit) and friendly company in a lovely setting. Cubans, Canadians, Brits and others mixed together with warmth and good fellowship.

When Stuart and I hired a taxi to go to see the Bay of Pigs area we had an excellent driver named Robert who spoke good English and could explain many things about Cuba. There were bananas and grapefruits growing, sugar cane, fields of vegetables and animals from goats to cattle and horses. The chivi - I think that is its name but I can't find it on Google - is raised for its skin for use in drums. You can't beat it.... We also visited an alligator/crocodile farm where there are thousands of them - some to replenish wild stocks taken for food - others for breeding, many others being killed for the local restaurant. We were not keen on the guide prodding them with a long stick to get them to lash out. We also found ourselves given a medium-size croc (snout roped shut) to hold for photos (small charge made here) and realised it might be counted a non-kosher activity. Er - perhaps I need a different phrase there. The crocodile looked rather peeved at the whole thing. But the action earned something more for the farmer and the beast was probably going to finish up as a meat course anyway. Playing the grinning tourist is, however, a rather dubious exercise.

The Museum of the Revolution in Havana is a mixed affair - much book-on-the-wall, few objects and a weak sense of good story-telling in the indoor galleries, but some impressive vehicles outside which were used in the 1959 revolution. These ranged from fighter aircraft to home-made tanks converted from tractors. The Cuban revolutionaries were in the ploughshares-into-swords phase in those days. The display style applied for the Museo Giron commemorating the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. That was the one organised by the CIA, using Cubans who had fled after the revolution having supported the unpopular president Fulgencio Batista. They might possibly have been engaged in the corruption, gambling and prostitution rackets that gave 1950s Cuba the soubriquet of ‘brothel of the USA’.

These are such important stories but they need much better telling in the two museums. We did have Cuban Tourism Ministry people at the conference, though, and they were very open about needing to improve the standards of those attractions. This included the importance of adding English-language interpretation on displays. All were in Spanish - the museums are considered primarily for educating Cuban school children, and only with the growing reliance on tourist income over the last twenty years do they have to match the needs of new audiences. Yet the early Cuban history museum in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza - a fortress in Old Havana - was one of the best I have ever seen, even though all the interpretive text was in Spanish only.

Image: Cuba impressions 04

The events I read about in newspapers, saw on television or heard about in school concerning Cuba some fifty years ago were political milestones. Between 1956 and 1959 Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara and others led the successful revolution which overthrew a corrupt regime. They founded the modern communist state of Cuba. After centuries of colonial exploitation, often of the worst kind, Cuba could stand up for itself.

But the USA government did not like the idea of a communist state in its own back yard. This was despite having imposed an arms embargo on Batista’s government in 1958, helping to bring it down. As nationalisation and a communist system slowly took over (cleaning up the mafia-run gambling and prostitution rackets at the same time) the Kennedy government in the US turned to the CIA and tried to assassinate Castro after he became president. 1961 saw the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion. CIA-trained Cubans who had fled to Florida invaded their former country at a location on its southern coast. They were easily defeated by Cuban soldiers, trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. The country was becoming a focus of the cold war and in danger of becoming the scene of devastatingly hot wars. The US had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey and the Middle East, targeted on the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent similar missiles towards Cuba in late 1962. John F Kennedy threatened their direct destruction. After several tense days negotiations led to the Soviet Union withdrawing the missiles and the US taking back those placed in the Middle East and Turkey, at the same time promising not to try invading Cuba again.

Cuba completed its move towards a Soviet-style communist state in 1963. The USA imposed a diplomatic and economic embargo. Cuba could have been crippled were it not for its political protector and mentor the Soviet Union which stepped up economic and other forms of assistance. Amongst the latter were the supply of transport vehicles and the construction of a three-lanes-each-way highway from Havana to the eastern extremity of Cuba. This could be used to move troops quickly in case the USA went back on its promise of non-invasion. It is also a reminder that treaty obligations under the Platt Amendment of 1901 gave the USA the right to a naval base in Guantànamo Bay, the site of the US prison camp for alleged 9/11 plotters and others.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s its economic support for Cuba evaporated. Cuba entered a ‘Special Period’. This saw increases in tourism and an acceptance of a bigger part for private enterprise. The latter grew from around 8% in 1981 to some 22% in 2006. Tourism from overseas was allowed in segregated areas. After 1997 these restrictions were ended, allowing visitors to mingle openly with Cubans. However the US dollar was banned – it could be exchanged for pesos but only at a high commission rate. The use of US credit cards was also banned. A system of national pesos and convertible pesos was introduced, the former for Cubans and the latter mainly for tourists and made available only within Cuba itself. Cubans receive part of their pay in convertible pesos and so can make some use of tourist facilities. But it is a confusing system.

This is the background to the tourist activity in Cuba. Perceptions on both sides – hosts and guests – can be very ingrained and perhaps deeply erroneously. At present the people I have heard from in the UK who have been to the country have generally enjoyed the experience. Most have been only to resorts such as Varadero however, whereas in many destinations their experience of the ‘real’ country and its people has been strictly limited. During our conference it was suggested that the Cuban Ministry of Tourism could try to tempt people who had enjoyed resorts there to return and spend time in the capital. My own straw poll conducted on Facebook suggested that many people would like to have seen more of Cuba. Independent travellers would also be a good potential market. However, variable information from the Cuban Embassies and a refusal because of federal US law for web sites like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz to handle flights to Cuba cause difficulties. For those who do want to go, that excellent Scottish-based website skyscanner.com works very well. I flew with KLM and Martinair – both part of the Air France group now. For many years Canada has supplied most of the tourists going to Cuba – it does not take part in the US embargo. Interestingly, Britain has now become the second most important market.

Cuba is a mix of a country: advanced in terms of education and health, crippled in terms of economics by the loss of Soviet support and the continued embargo by the United States. As private enterprise grows there I suspect that the embargo has long been counter-productive. Had the US lifted it years ago I think there would have been a fair chance that, as in all the other communist and ex-communist countries of the world (bar North Korea), Cuba would be now be moving rapidly towards at least a mixed economy in the style of China.

I get the impression long-established attitudes in the USA, usually on the Republican right, have become entrenched. If US citizens were free to travel and see for themselves what Cuba is like and how welcoming its people are, then their fear of the political system there would, again as in the case of China, begin to disappear. Tourism can break down such psychological barriers.


Image: Cuba impressions 05

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