Cuba: In Search of the Lost Tourist

14ymedio biggerElías Amor Bravo, Economist, June 27, 2023 — Nobody understands how it is still possible that some leaders of the Ministry of Tourism of Cuba, at this point in history, continue to believe that the recovery of the sector on the Island will happen “through their efforts.” It is a way, like any other, of denying reality and imposing political ideology on rationality and economic efficiency. Tourism will only come out of the hole it is in if a solid and powerful private sector directs it at the national level.
If this is not understood and the arguments are not convincing, the necessary recovery of tourism will not occur in the short or medium term, no matter how much the communist leaders believe what the “experts” say.

Specifically, 70 journalists from 10 countries specialized in tourism, spent a week in Havana “with all expenses paid by the government.” What are these guests going to say, entertained in luxury by those who want to hear their opinion? Their assessment leaves much to be desired. Maybe we should ask the tourists who come to the Island and don’t return. That information is, without a doubt, much more useful for making decisions.

The data is eloquent. So far in 2023, Cuban tourism is still 40% below the level reached in 2019, the last normal year before the COVID-19 pandemic. Other destinations in the Caribbean have already far exceeded the records of that year, but tourism in Cuba  has slowed down and does not stand out. There is something that prevents the sector from prospering. The claw of the communist state has a lot to do with it, but attention must also be paid to other issues.

For example, the Regime’s plan for tourism, which has been reported ad nauseam, hopes to close this year with 3.5 million foreign visitors, which could bring the figure closer to the level of 2019 but without reaching it. In reality, no one believes at this point in the year that the plan will be fulfilled, so all the establishments that depend on it are cutting back to avoid major losses.

And what about the state’s tourism promotion policy? It’s not enough to stop in Varadero, as the island’s main vacation hub, and in Havana, for the international tourist demand that arrives on the Island. This model worked in the 1950s. It’s true that it was interrupted between 1959 and 1990, when international tourism was reopened, but there is now a repetition of tourist destinations and centers of interest. Shouldn’t we start thinking about other kinds of attractions?

And what about hotel construction by the communist state? According to official data, Cuba already has more than 300 hotels, some with four and five stars, and 70,000 rooms distributed throughout the archipelago. But the leaders think that this is insufficient to make a real impact on the entry of travelers, so the state continues to build hotels and then transfers their management to foreign tourism companies. As all the money comes from the same place, what is invested in tourism has to be deducted from other social and infrastructure needs, and then hotel occupancy doesn’t increase beyond 16%. The disaster is total and absolute.

And what about the communist state’s reaction to technological challenges? This is even better. The leaders have discovered that “information technologies and their relationship with tourism must be strengthened.” This conclusion was reached during the XVI international seminar on journalism and tourism by the “experts” of the José Martí International Institute of Journalism in Havana. They proposed some “tourist recipes” that should give results in a relatively short period.

The conclusion was that electronic communication networks have to be extended to all hotels in the nation and other establishments that require it. The seminar talked about “tourism 4.0” in the fourth industrial revolution and about digitization. This is an academic topic, undoubtedly interesting for those countries that have experienced the previous stages of tourism 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, which in Cuba have neither been transited nor expected.

So wanting to skip those phases and go directly to tourism 4.0, where there is supposed to be “a digital traveler who uses these tools before, during and after his vacation (…) who is always connected, informed and requires fast services, along with personalized treatment,” is an absolute nonsense that can end up giving a much worse result than the current one. It can’t be rushed. When the state directs and controls an economic sector – in this case tourism – these things happen that no one can understand.

It is the same as speculating about the future of Caribbean tourism as a global tourism product, which must be prepared for a new era. The Caribbean has been successfully functioning since the 1950s and has been earned prestige on its own merit, but if you want to make a realistic diagnosis you have to forget about the Caribbean as a homogeneous space and verify that there are many Caribbeans, and in that variety is the success of the destination that other areas of the world do not have. The problem, in particular, is how to place Cuba in the context of the successful tourism of the Caribbean, and the conclusion is that it’s not easy.

For example, the real estate sector, which is absent in Cuba, has been one of the strengths of the Caribbean destination that attracts loyal tourists and stable residents, who generate a very solid and effective demand. In fact, the sun and beach as a basic element of the offer is more than surpassed, and no country in the area bets only on that combination. Those who come late, as happens in Cuba, should think of other more sustainable and lasting proposals. But this is what happens when the state directs and controls a sector. Its priority is not profitability and business continuity but to fill the coffers with foreign currency and then allocate it later to unproductive and inefficient activities. And that vicious circle has to be broken so that tourism means something real for Cuba.

State leaders of tourism policy always have the possibility to evade their responsibilities, which are many, and they use the easy argument that the problems of the sector on the Island are due to eternal difficulties: inflation, international trade situations and of course, naturally, the pressures of the United States against Cuba, precisely in economic matters. But in reality, all that affects other countries that have had great success in the recovery of the tourism sector. By the way, in all these countries, the state has no participation, nor does it direct or control tourism.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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