Ivan Garcia, 31 August 2106 — Nothing pleases Germán more than having a cold beer by a swimming pool or indulging in the all-you-can-eat buffet at a resort hotel. The fifty-five-year-old blacksmith worker also likes people calling him Sir, watching foreign TV channels and having something for breakfast other than coffee with milk and bread with mayonnaise.
Sitting in a large leather chair at the Memories Flamenco Beach Resort in Cayo Coco, a small island in Ciego de Ávila province about 600 kilometers east of Havana, Germán confesses that is the seventeenth time he and his family have stayed at a resort. “I do not have money to spare nor am I rich. But we have the right to relax in a nice hotel and be treated the same as foreigners.”
The number of Cubans who are able to afford a stay at an all-inclusive resort at various tourist spots across the island has been steadily growing. In spite of sky-high prices, Eugenio — a tour promoter for the military-run Gaviota chain — says that this year “the number local tourists staying at three, four and five-star hotels is likely to surpass one and a half million.”
That figure would not be significant but for the fact that the average worker makes only about twenty dollars a month. A three-night stay for Germán, his wife and their three children costs 556 convertible pesos, the equivalent of what a medical specialist earns in a year.
Where are Cubans getting that kind of money? It is a good question but one that Giordano, a forty-year-old self-employed worker, prefers to sidestep. “Not by saving a few kilos every month in a business curing ham and sausages,” he replies.
It would seem that things are going fairly well for Giordano. He and his wife rent a hotel room twice month. If business is going well, I will stay for four or five days. If not, we’ll only come on the weekend.”
Luis Alberto, a desk clerk at a hotel in Cayo Guillermo, says, “Many Cubans stay for a week or more. They often tip more generously than foreign visitors. I suppose they can afford it because they have successful businesses, receive big remittances or have money saved from working in medical missions overseas.”
Gina is a dermatologist who has worked in South Africa as well as Trinidad and Tobago. She acknowledges that, with the money someone like herself saves from her job and treating affluent clients on the side, she could spend six days in an “all-included” hotel with a nice beach. “But this is the exception,” she notes. “Usually, doctors have so many pent-up needs that we use the money to repair or purchase a house or to buy a car.”
A source who works at a Havana branch of Western Union says, “Every year more money changes hands, mainly from the United States to Cuba. Whether it is to address a serious family problem or to buy a plane ticket for a relative who wants to emigrate to the United States, the average Cuban receives an average of two-hundred dollars a month.”
For Daniel staying in a high-end hotel and being a tourist does not represent an economic sacrifice. As the owner of a private publicity firm, he can afford to stay up to five times a year at a resort spa. “Of course, I am always on the lookout for promotions and good deals. There is a segment of the population like me that can spend more than three days in a first-class hotel.”
Noel, a former manager with the state-run resort company Cubanacán, says, “Clearly, a ton of money is coming into Cuba from Miami but let’s not forget that there are private businesses that also generate quite a bit of money, which can make a resort vacation affordable. It’s incorrect to think every Cuban on holiday is there because his overseas family is paying for it. Most people are broke but I estimate that about ten percent of the population can afford a few short vacations within Cuba.”
And the number of domestic tourists on the island is an important figure. It exceeds the number of Canadian travelers, the largest foreign contingent.
According to Eugenio, a tourism promoter, “within five years it could be as high as two and a half million people. Cubans have an inferiority complex because of mistreatment by service staff at some hotels. But although local customers spend less, their money is just as good as that of Spaniards or Italians. Before too long, the only contingent that will be bigger than ours will be the Americans.”
But that is yet to be seen.