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Posted June 12, 2004 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News
CAYO LARGO, Cuba – This pristine island off Cuba’s southern coast has what you might expect: 17 miles of unspoiled beaches, eight hotels and a cozy marina.

What’s surprising is what Cayo Largo doesn’t have – namely, native Cubans. Not a single Cuban lives on the island full time. Cubans work here in 20-day shifts, serving the thousands of foreign tourists who visit every month, then returning to their hometowns for 10 days.

Cayo Largo is an example, albeit extreme, of how Cuba would like to run its tourist industry, analysts say. Everything is tightly controlled, crime-free, almost Disney-like. And virtually all tourism proceeds go to Fidel Castro’s government, not to private entrepreneurs.

It’s part of a broader government effort to consolidate control over the tourist industry, which brings in about $2 billion in revenue per year, more than any other enterprise. The number could be billions more, if not for the strict U.S. regulations, which prohibits most citizens from visiting the communist country.

Some U.S. experts have predicted that waves of foreign visitors will probably spread democratic ideals and be a catalyst for political change. But the Cubans are proving them wrong, at least for now.

“The government has control,” said Ninoska Perez, a director of the Cuban Liberty Council, a prominent anti-Castro group in Miami. “And as long as the government is in control, there will not be any change.”

It’s a controversial debate in South Florida and Washington. The Cuban Liberty Council and other Miami groups want the U.S. government to maintain its strict ban on American travel to Cuba, saying that such travel only props up the Castro government. But many U.S. lawmakers, business organizations and others have increasingly insistent that the ban be lifted.

“Unrestricted travel by Americans will unleash a flood of contact with Cubans, transmitting information, ideas and values,” Cuba expert Philip Peters testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance in September.

Wayne Smith, the former top American diplomat in Havana, agrees.

“Americans believe that the travel of American citizens abroad is one of the best means of spreading the message of our democratic system. Why should it not have that effect in the case of Cuba?” he told the same committee.

The stakes are high for the Cuban government, analysts say. If the ban remains, growth in the Cuban tourist industry could be sluggish, which would hurt the economy. But if the prohibition is removed, an estimated 1 million American tourists would arrive in the first year, infusing the government with much-needed cash.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Daz-Balart, R-Fla., is fighting to prevent that from happening. “Mass tourism” from the United States, “and the billions of dollars it would generate,” is Mr. Castro’s “No. 1 policy objective,” he said in a March opinion piece in the Miami Herald. Lifting the ban “would be tragic and unconscionable.”

An American, visiting Cayo Largo in violation of the U.S. ban, said he objects to the travel restriction, but isn’t eager to see Cuba overrun with American tourists.

“If Americans came here freely, it would be impossible to get a spot on one of these boats,” said the man, a 47-year-old Dallas doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He was aboard an 18-foot Sea Pro fishing boat that was churning toward one of the hundreds of tiny islets of sand near Cayo Largo. He would spend the day fly fishing, stalking bonefish and other elusive creatures in shallow waters.

“My job is pretty stressful,” he said. “I just wanted to get away from it all. And this is getting away from it.”

There were only six small fishing boats in the surrounding waters that morning.

“If Cuba had a pure capitalist system,” he said, “you’d see 100 boats out here. And you’d have to get up at 5 a.m. to stake out your territory.”

Under U.S. law, Americans who violate the travel ban can be fined thousands of dollars; $55,000 per violation is the maximum civil penalty.

The Bush administration has stepped up enforcement, inspecting more than 95,000 passengers traveling to or from Cuba since October and detecting several hundred who allegedly violated the travel ban.

Cuban-Americans, some business people, journalists, diplomats and academics are eligible to travel to the country legally, but tourists aren’t allowed.

Some supporters of the ban say Americans shouldn’t travel to Cuba because the communist government practices what they describe as “apartheid tourism.”

Most Cubans aren’t allowed to stay overnight at hotels, even if they have the money to pay for the rooms. Nor are they allowed to board the old Soviet planes that carry tourists to such spots as Cayo Largo.

Ms. Perez said she can’t understand why there was such international outrage over apartheid in South Africa while Cuba’s policies seem to get little scrutiny.

“There’s a double standard when it comes to Cuba,” she said.

A 57-year-old Dallas resident visiting the island for the third time said he doesn’t mind that such spots as Cayo Largo may give foreigners a sanitized, unauthentic feel for the Cuban people.

“I don’t think it matters much to tourists whether this is the real Cuba,” he said. “Cayo Largo is not the place to find that.”

In any case, he said, “Cubans are engaging and super friendly. I don’t think you get a superficial experience coming here.”

Lizbet Calero, an employee at the 296-room Sol Cayo Largo hotel, said the island would lose its appeal if Cubans settled there.

“Right now, it’s very isolated and people can enjoy the beaches with hardly anyone else around,” she said. “If there were a town here, it wouldn’t be as peaceful.”

Canada doesn’t have a travel ban to Cuba. And Eric Chouinard, 36, a salesman from Montreal, said he visited Cayo Largo because it’s “a no-hassle vacation.” Inexpensive, too just $850 for round-trip airfare and seven nights at an all-inclusive hotel.

“This is my definition of a virgin island,” he said. “When I get the money, I’ll absolutely be back.”

Hugo Senecal, 30, a businessman from Holland, said he is astonished by the place because it seems almost devoid of Cubans.

“You never see them on the beach,” he said. “It’s not like Havana where Cubans tend to stick to you until they get some money out of you. Here we don’t see Cubans at all.”

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More than 2 million tourists are expected to visit Cuba in 2004. Most will arrive from Canada and Europe.

U.S. citizens face fines of up to $55,000 for violating the travel ban to Cuba.

Cuba’s tourist industry employs about 100,000 people. The enterprise has created another 200,000 spin-off jobs in agriculture, communications, energy and other sectors.

Varadero, a resort town east of Havana, is the country’s most popular destination. More than 750,000 visitors arrived in 2001.

Cubans working in tourism tend to be overqualified. Many speak more than one foreign language.

More than 60 foreign airlines operate in Cuba, which has 11 international airports.

Cuba was the ninth-most-popular tourist destination in the Americas in 2001, up from 23rd in 1990.

Cuban government companies have built more than 40,000 hotel rooms, which made the government the 26th-largest hotel company in the world in 1999. Some Cuban officials have predicted the country will have 100,000 rooms by 2010, a number that some analysts call overly optimistic.

Sources: The Cuban government; the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit research organization; Hotels magazine; a January 2003 speech by Fidel Castro.

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