14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Viñales, 27 June 2018 — At the entrance to Calle Obispo a guide explains to her customers the restoration works in the historical center of Havana. A few yards away, the line to exchange currency is full of foreigners and in the corner bar one hears English, French and German. Tourism is shaping the face of several areas of Cuba and becoming a problem for their residents.
“In this neighborhood you can’t even walk,” complains Idania Contreras, a resident of Obrapía Street in Old Havana and a law graduate. “At first people were happy because the area improved economically, but little by little the tourists have been taking over all the spaces and this is less and less like a neighborhood where people live.”
“A pineapple never costs less than 20 Cuban pesos because the private restaurants in the area can pay that amount, because they sell the tourists a piña colada for three times that price“
As a consequence of the increase in tourism, prices have also risen. “Now buying fruits in the markets is a headache because they are hoarded by the people who rent to tourists,” adds Contreras. “A pineapple never costs less than 20 Cuban pesos because the private restaurants in the area can pay that amount, because they sell the tourists a piña colada for three times that price,” she explains. In her view, those mainly affected are the citizens themselves who can’t afford these prices.
Contreras, who worked for a few months in a real estate management office, says housing prices are also up in the area. “The price per square meter has exploded around the Plaza de la Catedral, the Plaza de San Francisco and the streets where it is most profitable streets.” She also says that these areas are beginning to look like the center of Barcelona or Venice, where fewer and fewer families are living.
However, she acknowledges that “the problem has not yet reached the point of other cities in the world that receive many more tourists,” but she is concerned because there are no “public policies to alleviate the problems we are already experiencing.”
Contreras’s biggest fear is that there is only talk of the positive side of tourism, while some streets in the area are already showing symptoms of congestion and tourism activity aggravates the problems of waste treatment and water supply.
Several regions of the island face the challenge of absorbing an increasing number of travelers despite the precariousness of their infrastructure. Among the areas most affected by the avalanche of visitors are the Viñales valley, the city of Trinidad, the Varadero resort area and the Cuban capital.
“At night the discos are full of ‘yumas’ with young girls and it is a really pitiful show for our children”
“It is very difficult for a Cuban to rent a room because homeowners prefer to rent only tourists,” warns Gustavo, a handicraft seller near the Casa de la Trova in the city of Trinidad, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988 and is now an obligatory stop on many of the package tours.
“This whole area is focused on foreigners,” he says. The salesman, born on the outskirts of Trinidad, believes that there are many people who benefit from tourism, but on the way he has lost the city he knew as a child. “Now it has been commodified and everything has a price, even people,” he laments.
In all the tourist hubs, along with an increase in private businesses there is also an increase in prostitution. “At night the discos are full of yumas, foreigners, with young girls and it is a really pitiful show for our children,” notes Gustavo.
“[Tourism] is more positive than negative because 30 years ago this city had old and beautiful houses, but nothing more,” says the seller despite his reservations about this economic sector.
Carlos and his two children live on the road to Viñales. Coming from a family of farmers, they now sell fruit at a stand by the side of the road. “Most of our customers are foreigners coming and going from the Valley,” says the farmer. He hasn’t gone into town for two years because, he says, “you can’t take a step with so many tourists.”
“Before this was predominantly a farming area with strong traditions, but now everything is being lost”
The winding road that leads to Viñales also suffers with the increase of vehicles. “It’s a rare week that there is not an accident in this section,” recounts Carlos while pointing to one of the curves near his house. The number of travelers interested in the area seems to have grown, but the seller points out that the streets and roads remain the same and that no expansion has been undertaken.
Carlos’s closest neighbors have a thriving business that offers horseback rides to travelers. They gain much more from these “ecotours” than they could sowing beans or tobacco, another change that is due to the avalanche of visitors. “Before this was predominantly a farming area with strong traditions, but now everything is being lost,” he says.
A few yard away, a tobacco drying shed stands with its gabled roof and its walls made of logs. In the interior, a peasant shows a dozen tourists how the leaves re dried. “This shed has been set up for groups who want to see how the process is done, it’s pure showcase,” says Carlos. “In this town everything is already like this.”