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New tourism figures were released by Cuba recently and the news isn’t good: arrivals are up (as fans are quick to point out), but revenues are down (as detractors never fail to underscore). Regardless of your love/hate bent (see note 1), the seeming contradiction between more arrivals but less profits makes sense since a Canadian can fly into Varadero and stay a week at an all-inclusive resort for less than a Toronto-Havana plane ticket alone.
Visitors up and profits down isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the short term save for one small detail: many first timers who visit Cuba say they won’t return.
So what’s a little island to do?
Followers of Here is Havana know my feelings about the golf course strategy Cuba is doggedly pursuing to attract foreign investment and visitors, so I won’t flog that dead horse further. Medical tourism is another growth sector reaping rewards, if the number of Cuban Americans passing through the doors of Cira Garcia (the foreigner hospital here) is any indication. But I’ve recently seen another side of Cuban tourism and it looks a lot like the DR.
One element of Cuba’s tourism strategy many people don’t know about is the push to get locals into the mix (see note 2). In theory it’s a great tactic: offer unbelievable deals for the domestic market and watch those precious CUCs migrate from under mattresses and into the national coffers. In practice however, it looks more like this:
Voluminous flesh rolling from scanty beachware – Cuban fashion is a force majeure under the best of circumstances, but take it to the seashore and it’s a Frederick’s of Hollywood train wreck. Lucite stilettos and lamé swimsuits with cutaway sides and gold buckles of unusual size, plus ridiculously shredded ‘cover-ups’ providing full on views of what four decades of congris does to a woman’s body – like a car crash, you want to look away, but can’t.
Drink, Eat, Sleep – There’s something of the spectacular watching Cubans scrum at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Let’s just say there isn’t a plate big enough for the piles of protein and starch they crave. As a work-around, friends and family members divvy up duties and fan out to the different stations, regrouping at their table with multiple plates so heavy they take two hands to hold: rice for 15, bread for a baseball team, mountains of pork chunks and potatoes, and coma-inducing towers of lard-laden sweets. Once the feeding frenzy begins, it blows over quickly, like a late afternoon thunderstorm. From the table, each diner to a one lumbers towards the nearest chaise lounge and passes out. Look for the beer bellies, listen for the snores.
Cost cutting & control – It’s not as bad as the old days when silverware had to be chained to the tables, but almost – on a recent visit to a beach installation that will remain nameless, it became clear that the cornerstone of the national tourism strategy is to maximize profits while limiting losses and cutting costs. I first realized it cruising the buffet. No exotic cheeses and pasta or steak stations like at other all-inclusives. For us it was claria and hot dogs, butter-less bread and shredded cabbage – more like a ‘comedor obrero’ (worker’s lunchroom) than a resort buffet, right down to the single salt shaker for the 200+ crowd. Other penny pinching measures included ‘honey’ that was really sugar water à la Special Period and to wash everything down, the choice of water or water (boiled, not bottled). No matter – the guajiro behind me at the buffet kept repeating breathlessly ‘está riquiquisisimo. ¡Riquiquisisimo!’
Tipsy entertainers – If you’ve ever been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort, you know they’re gaga for animación – entertainment from pool volleyball to salsa classes provided by gregarious, often gorgeous, Cubans known as animadores. At the low-budget place where we went, the animadora was a sweet ‘temba’ (35+) who downed not one, not two, but three screwdrivers before leading the crowd in a rousing round of karaoke.
Then there’s the reggaetón and overall pachanga of which Cubans are so fond – partying and kanoodling, dancing and romping about – often in public places. Not helping matters any are the plastic plates littering the beach, along with cups and fluorescent plastic straws, napkins and even a dirty diaper or two – in spite of the garbage cans spaced along the shore like birds on a wire or lovers on the Malecón (see note 3).
I wasn’t surprised that this resort was virtually foreigner-free (present company excepted). But I did realize on this trip that the most effective enforcer of so-called tourism apartheid is the almighty Market itself.
Money talks, bullshit walks – welcome to the Cuba Tourism 2.0.
1. Longtime Cuba followers know three cardinal rules apply when analyzing any news item: 1) consider the source; 2) read between the lines; and 3) after applying rules #1 and #2, accept the fact that you’ll probably never know the full story.
2. Prior to 2008, Cubans were not permitted to stay in hotels and resorts, leading many to brand the policy ‘tourism apartheid.’ That policy was reversed by Raul Castro.
3. Cubans’ aversion to trash cans is rivaled only by their aversion to flushing perfectly functional toilets. What up with that?