Can Tourism Save Cuba's Communist System?

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Can Tourism Save Cuba's Communist System?


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


MANY Cubans staring into the Intur shops filled with tourists buying goodies must feel like what a friend of mine described as |visitors viewing sea animals in an aquarium'. See, but don't touch! Comparing their empty shops to this wonderland of bounty, what do they think? No one in that country has taken an opinion poll.

Even though these shops and their host hotels are bringing in the much needed foreign exchange, will this favourable treatment of tourists solve Cuba's severe economic woes? In its numerous resorts, the Cuban government is doing its utmost to make sure tourism will bring in more and more of the world's financial controller -- the American dollar.

The hotels mushrooming day after day in these retreats are the heart of Cuba's attempt to overcome the US blockade and, at the same time, keep the country's communist system in place. The best example of this is Varadero, Cuba's top resort. New and rebuilt tourist abodes are opening their doors on a continuing basis. A half dozen years ago, with the exception of the International, a pre-revolution luxury relic, there was not one hotel which met the world's standards of four star and up tourist abodes. However, in the past several years, all this has changed. Paradiso, its twin Puntarena, Sol Palmeras, Tuxpan, and the huge 490-room Melia Varadero have opened their doors for business, and their inauguration is only the initial stage in bringing the resort's luxury tourist facilities up to world standards.

With the rooms they offer, added to those of the older two and three star lodging places, Varadero's hotels now incorporate 6,000 chambers. For the future, plans call for increasing these, mostly in the top category, at about 2,500 per annum until the year 2000 when the resort will have in the neighbourhood of 30,000 rooms waiting for the expected onrush of visitors.

The country has been striving hard since the collapse of the Soviet Union to cope with horrendous economic difficulties, such as shortages of oil and most other essentials, but the planned tourist projects have not been halted or even delayed. Varadero's newly built hotels were all completed on time. In 1991, I remember the five star Puntarena barely rising above its cement foundation. When I returned a few months ago, it was in full operation. Today, work continues on others; among those, well on its way to completion, is the six star hotel Cuatro Palmas.

Cuba's educated and skilled work force combined with the investment of foreign capital and technology in joint ventures have produced excellent results. Throughout the island, Castro's government has approved around fifty joint ventures with foreign companies and another 100 are under negotiations. In Varadero, the Cuban tourism state company, UNECA, in co-operation with the Spanish companies Oasis International and Gropo Sol, the Jamaican Super Clubs and Italian investments have built the recently opened hotels, or are working on the series of new projects along the resort's twelve miles of white sands and crystal clear blue waters.

With aid from the former Soviet Union now a thing of the past, virtually the country's only hope for prosperity is the tourist industry. In a supposedly classless society, tourists have become the privileged class. The best in food, lodgings, travelling facilities and entertainment are at their beck and call.

So far, the returns have met expectations. In the coming years, the government hopes that tourism will keep the staggering economy on an even keel. In spite of the fact that the USA retains an economic embargo against the country, including the banning of Americans travelling to the island, visitors from other countries are taking advantage of Cuba's reasonably priced new accommodations. Germans, Italians, Spaniards and tourists from the South American countries are arriving in ever-increasing numbers. Added to the Canadians who have been coming for years and now make up 49% of the country's visitors, Cuba now has an international clientele which could possibly push the island out of its economic difficulties. …

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