Responsible tourism in Cuba

As communism slowly eases its grip on Cuba, allowing imported technology and private enterprise, there is an increasing sense amongst travelers that you have to “go there now, before it all changes”. Everyone is keen to get a glimpse behind this modern Iron Curtain at one of the world’s last communist states. Cuba's self sufficiency, rejection of capitalism and socialist welfare state have resulted in a virtually classless society, with unsurpassed healthcare and free education for all. Years of isolation and trade embargoes have created a nation of expert recyclers; 60-year-old cars rumble on, clothing and shoes are repaired endlessly. Oxen - rather than tractors - plough the fields, and dominoes dominate over computer games and iPads.

But it’s easy to idealise. Communism does not prize entrepreneurship, and virtually everyone is employed on a meagre state salary, subsidised by pitiful state rations. Those that do get their hands on the sought-after CUC “tourist” dollars will find little to spend them on; the empty shops are hard to miss. Cubans are also not allowed to leave the country; it may be beautiful but for its citizens it is also an island prison.
So – understand that the “changes” that creeping capitalism may bring will actually be welcomed by many Cubans, proud as they are of their history and independence. And many visitors, once they see the reality of life on a Cuban ration book, accept and welcome this, too.

However, the sudden boom in tourism - with numbers doubling in the space of a decade - seems to have taken Cuba by surprise. While an increase in business and a boost to the economy are much needed, the Cuban government and the tourist industry need to act fast to ensure that the country doesn't succumb to overtourism, and the negative impacts on communities and the environment that this entails.

People & culture

Overtourism in Cuba

The number of tourists arriving in Cuba has risen exponentially over the past few years, and in 2017 reached around 4.2 million – having almost doubled in ten years. There are a number of reasons for this. Under the Obama administration, the travel restrictions that had prevented most US citizens from visiting Cuba were eased, and Americans rushed to take advantage of this. In 2014, just over 91,000 US tourists visited the island; by 2017 this had soared to over 619,500 [1].

This had the knock on effect of encouraging travelers from other regions to book vacations to Cuba in an effort to beat the anticipated influx of US visitors. With trade restrictions easing too, and the arrival of mobile phones, WiFi hotspots and other previously banned goods and services, there was also rush to see Cuba “before it changes”. Cuban culture, and the perceived ‘1950s timewarp’, have been the island’s biggest draws for decades, and the threat of them disappearing has been a huge incentive for travel.

Cuba is far from wealthy. In 2016, tourism boosted the country’s ailing economy by around $3 billion dollars [2]. Crucially, this gives Cubans access to the far more valuable convertible peso (CUC), as well as supporting entrepreneurs who are opening restaurants, driving taxis and opening up their homes to guests. These are some of the very few forms of private enterprise permitted in this communist nation, in which the average state salary comes in at a pitiful $15-$25 per month.

However, Cuba’s creaking infrastructure is not able to keep up with this rapid pace of change. New airlines are flying to the island; enormous cruise ships are docking in its ports, disgorging thousands of tourists at any one time into the cities and beaches; Havana hotel prices rose by more than 125 percent in the space of two years; and in 2016 alone, some 4,000 private rooms were added to Airbnb in Cuba [3].
This of course poses problems for travelers, who are encountering a lack of rooms, crowded restaurants and public transport. In hotspots such as Old Havana and Trinidad, they may find themselves surrounded by other tourists, rather than Cubans. The high hotel prices are even harder to stomach given the often poor standard of facilities, and of the service (hotel staff are usually state employees, and English is not widely spoken). More concerning is the problems it is causing for Cubans. Since the US trade embargo, the island has suffered food shortages and has had to become largely self sufficient in terms of food production. While the number of visitors has risen hugely, food supplies have not, and as hotels and restaurants can pay higher prices than local shops and residents, the scant supplies are often ending up on tourists’ plates [4]. Farmers would rather sell their produce in the private markets, where prices are not as subject to government control, than on the highly restricted state markets, and Cubans have reported not being able to afford staples such as onions and tomatoes,. While some Cubans have benefitted from the tourism boom, it has made life much harder for many others. Given the failure by the Cuban government to plan something as important as food, their aspiration to “double hotel capacity by 2030” [5] is particularly worrying.

What you can do
Visit Cuba outside the peak December to April season, to avoid the worst of the crowds.

Old Havana, Trinidad and Viñales are beautiful, of course, but do try and spend some time in lesser visited areas too. This means you are less likely to contribute to overtourism, while at the same time benefitting the economies in poorer parts of Cuba such as the east, around Santiago and Baracoa, for example.

Be conscious of your consumption. Even water is limited, as many Cubans rely on pumps, and in dry season, shortages can be severe. Your Cuban hosts may be going without so that you can have long showers, so be considerate.

Speak to your travel company about donations - see below for more information on this.

See our overtourism section to understand more about this issue, and get tips and insights on how to avoid contributing to the problem.

1. Reuters, January 2018
2, 3. Cuba Business Report, January 2017
4. The Independent, May 2017 and The New York Times, December 2016
5 Easy Voyage, 2016

The reality of life in an isolated state

Cubans have scant access to manufactured goods, no matter how hard they work or how much they earn. Clarita Derwent, from our supplier Cuban Adventures, explains: “That’s the difference between Cuba and most developing countries; you can be in a very poor African nation, but if you have money you can still walk into a shop and buy what you need, even if millions in that country can’t. But in Cuba, because of the blockade, it’s not that they haven’t got things because they haven’t got money; it’s that they haven’t got things in the country at all. Once I was in a town and people were getting really excited about drinking glasses coming into the store. Everyone flocked there to buy them until they’d sold out, as there might not be more for another six months.”

What you can do
Take items to donate - whether to your hosts, hotel staff, in schools, residential homes or hospitals. Many items simply don't exist; and for the brief time that they do they may be obtainable only in sought-after CUCs. The list is endless: pens, pencils, exercise books, toiletries, umbrellas, clothes, shoes, guitar strings, over-the-counter medicines, sticking plasters, sunglasses, reading glasses, kitchenware...

If possible, don't deposit all your gifts in Havana. This is where most stock arrives anyway; it's also where most tourists arrive, and donate their gifts. The poorest area is the southeast around Santiago de Cuba - items here will be even more warmly received. But in any of the provinces you will find poverty is higher, tourist jobs scarcer, and the need for donated goods greater.
Marcel, from our supplier Latin America Journeys, explains more:

“Going to Cuba is not just a beautiful paradise vacation. There are many aspects to it, and if people are prepared for these they will enjoy it more and can also give back to Cuban society. For example, a girl in Trinidad has diabetes, so a Canadian family got a whole package of support to help her with injections and needles. I always note information down when I get asked for help, and if clients ask me I can let them know the needs of a specific family. So many households need so many things - you can't imagine it.”

Jineteros – hassle on the streets of Cuba

Even those who speak no Spanish will learn the word ‘jinetero’ pretty quickly – the word literally translates as ‘jockey’ but it refers to the people who hassle tourists in Cuba. As well as people asking for donations in the street – pens, toothpaste, soap – the jineteros may want to show you to a friend’s bar, restaurant or casa particular, where they may get a cut of your fee, or a hefty bill will be run up. Others may ask you to buy formula milk for their baby – you can buy some for $20 in a nearby shop, which will later be returned with the proceeds split between the jinetero and the shopkeeper.

Men and women are targeted equally, and the jineteros may be male, female (jineteras), couples or friends – which makes the scams difficult to discern. To make things harder, Cubans are generally gregarious and curious about the foreign countries they have never been permitted access to, so there are plenty of people who genuinely want to enjoy a drink with you or give you a tour – without a cent in return.

What you can do
Georgina Johnson, from our supplier Chimu Adventures, offers her tips on dealing with hassle:

“Everyone’s just trying to make a bit of money because Cuba’s a communist country. You might be annoyed that they’re hassling you, but at the same time, they probably live in a shack and have old trainers that have been superglued together. Havana is the worst place for it – but they won’t do it if there are police around. Just politely say no, you never need to be aggressive. And if you’re on a pre-booked tour you won’t have any problems.”

Responsible tourism tips

Be sensitive and open minded on the subject of politics. Cubans love to discuss politics and their daily life in a communist state, but the story is not black and white so don't try to impose your point of view. There is a rather 'Big Brother' atmosphere on the streets, with people reluctant to express political views anywhere they could be overheard. Let them be the ones to bring up politics first (and they will) - and be aware that people will be happier to speak more openly in their homes or taxis. Always tip in CUCs – these are worth so much more to a Cuban than CUPs. Cuba is famous for its culture rather than its countryside – but there are some excellent national parks and Biosphere Reserves. Do make a point of visiting these to support their conservation, and hire a local guide. State guides are trained to a high level on specialist subjects and will also speak at least two languages – and again, be sure to tip them; they’ll be on a state salary. You may notice that Cubans drop a lot of litter, and are not “environmentally aware” by our Western standards. However, this is more than offset by other aspects of life in Cuba – nothing useful is ever discarded – items are never viewed as disposable; cars, clothes and shoes are repaired until they literally fall to pieces; and there is a relatively low number of cars – with bicycles and horses still very much in use. Additionally, most agriculture is organic, with oxen ploughing the fields.
Georgina Johnson, from our supplier Chimu Adventures, shares her experiences of creative environmentalism:
“I took things in carrier bags and gave them to my hosts as gifts. But when I went to throw away the bag, they wouldn’t let me! Here, we put things like bottles into a recycling bin, but they reuse them and turn them into a vase... I remember someone filling a plastic water bottle with seeds and putting them on the end of sticks. Then they put them in the oven to melt them down onto the stick, and used them as maracas!”
There are some opportunities to watch and swim with dolphins in Cuba. For in-depth tips on how to choose a responsible dolphin tour, take a look at our 2-minute guide to watching and swimming with dolphins.
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Alexandro Espinar] [Empty egg shop in Havana: Paul Keller] [Cruise ship docking in Havana: Robert Nelson] [Cuban resourcefullness: Vicki Brown]