14ymedio, Havana, September 15, 2019 — Marcia and Luis own a guesthouse on one of the most centrally located thoroughfares in the colonial city of Trinidad. It includes a handicraft shop and serves as a meeting point for foreigners looking for guides who can show them “the hidden face of the city,” one of the best preserved on the island. But for the past six months they have had little business.
“We started noticing a drop-off at the end of last year but we thought it was a seasonal thing and that it would get better by February or March, when we normally have a lot of guests,” says Marcia. “But instead things just got worse. Now we are losing money and paying for our [operating] license out of our savings because there aren’t many customers and those who do come spend very little.”
Recently published data from the National Statistics Office confirms this impression. Tourists from the top five European countries seem to have lost their enthusiasm. The number of visitors from France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy fell 10% to 25% in 2018 compared to the previous year.
In the sitting room of a colonial-era house there is area set aside for the sale of handicrafts, pen and ink drawings, traditional clothing and refrigerator ornaments. “Two years ago this room was full of people all day long,” recalls Luis. “But the customers who spent the most and gave the biggest tips are gone. They were the ones who were not part of a tour group. Now they arrive by bus, spend half an hour in the city and leave.”
A few yards from the privately owned restaurant Sol y Son the situation is not much different. “We went from having customers lining up outside to having to hunt for them in other areas,” confesses a young man in white shirt, who holds a menu, trying to attract customers.
He believes the reason is a change in the type of tourist. “Now there are more people coming as part of packaged tours and fewer who come on their own.” Accustomed to paying a tip of at least 10%, Americans, who started coming after the 2014 diplomatic thaw, created an expectation that, for every bill, there would be a nice tip.
However, customers from other parts of the world did not have the same custom. This became a source of resentment in privately owned businesses catering to tourists, which face high taxes, license fees and government inspectors, who are often paid under the table to look the other way.
Almost 300 miles away, another one of the country’s major tourist centers is resentful over the decline in visitors from the United States and Europe. Viñales had been so crowded in September, “we had to ask permission to cross the street,” says Guillermo Luaces, who along with his wife rents two rooms in their house, located “in the shadow of the cliffs.”
Luaces describes a worrying situation: “There are fewer of them, they don’t stay for long and they spend the bare minimum.” The combination has been fatal for the finances of local entrepreneurs, who must pay expensive license fees, high personal income taxes and other costs associated with being located in a highly desirable tourist area.
However, Luaces is reluctant to lower his prices to attract more guests. “We are as low as we can go to make this worthwhile. An my house we charge 35 convertible pesos for one night, breakfast included. If we went any lower, we would be losing money,” he says. “Between electricity, taxes and the cost of breakfast supplies, there is very little profit.”
Several self-employed workers in the area interviewed by 14ymedio blame the drop in tourism on several factors. New regulations imposed by the Trump administration which limit Americans’ ability to travel to Cuba top the list, but other internal factors could also be contributing to the tourist sector’s sluggish numbers.
“Customers say Cuba is a very expensive country for tourists and that, for what they pay here, they could spend more time in the Dominican Republic or Cancun, which offer more amenities,” says Reyna, a cook who works in a privately owned restaurant a few yards from Viñales’ main park. “They complain about the services in general and that everything costs a lot.”
In Havana, the main port-of-call for cruise ships, the current situation is affecting thousands of entrepreneurs whose businesses are based on tourists willing to buy small items. A few yards from the Sierra Maestra Cruise Ship Terminal, a cafe offers soft drinks and snack plates, most with English names.
“Most of our customers come by boat and, although everything is included onboard, they often want to try some local dish, so we sell small combos accompanied by cocktails,” explains Dayron, one of the young employees at the cafe. “But we’ve had to change course in the last few weeks. Now we’re trying to attract more local customers to make up for the drop in tourism.”
The change is reflected in restaurant menus. “We used to offer a daiquiri and something to snack on, such as stuffed tostones, but now most of our sales are beer and sandwiches, which is what the locals consume,” he says. “We have to try to survive until the Americans return. But let’s hope they don’t take too long because businesses here are in the red.”
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