Capitalist Measures within a Socialist Model: A Commodity Chains Analysis of the Emerging Cuban Tourism Industry

Article excerpt


At the beginning of the 21st century, tourism was one of the largest and fastest growing global industries (Tisdell 2001; Schwartz 1997). It has been one of the largest employer and export sectors in the world (Tisdell 2001). Over the past few decades tourism has become a critical source of income and a key development strategy for many lesser developed countries (LDCs). In addition to offering employment opportunities, it serves as a means of economic diversification and foreign exchange, draws investment capital, and can promote other forms of development by fostering backward and forward linkages to tourism sectors of the economy. In 2001 tourism was the principal export earner for 83% of developing countries (Roe, Ashley, Page, and Meyer 2004). According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, "tourism is the only large sector of international trade in services where poor countries have consistently posted a surplus" (World Trade Organization 1997).

The reliance on tourism in LDCs represents a change in development strategies. Many developing countries are shifting emphasis from low-cost competition in the manufacturing sector to strategies that help them identify and exploit their distinct assets--for example, human capital and scenic amenities (Drabenstott 1994). In the past, those LDCs that were engaged in tourism-based development strategies competed for mass tourism destinations that cater to sun, sea, and sand. More recently, however, their development strategies are diversifying due to increasing differentiation of tourist demand (Tisdell 2001).

This article examines tourism development in Cuba. The island has become the world's fastest growing tourism market (Dominguez, Perez Villanueva, and Barberia 2005). Tourism is an area where Cuba has a clear comparative advantage due to its physical, social, and cultural assets and diverse geographic regions. It has endless beaches, numerous national parks and eco-attractions, unique historic sites and architectural landscapes, and a distinctive cultural tradition. Over the past several years Cuba has evolved from a relatively isolated country that shunned tourism to one of the Caribbean's most important leisure destinations.

Cuban tourism is highly concentrated in the capital city of Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, which together generate 70% of tourist revenue (Cervino and Cubillo 2005). However, the nation is currently attempting to develop six other regions (Holgui'n, Jardines del Rey, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos) and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in regional infrastructure. The six areas are home to the majority of Cuba's natural, historic, and cultural attractions, including seven United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Committee (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites (Cervino and Cubillo 2005). The success of tourism has been premised on the state's ability to encourage foreign hotel operators to invest in the country and the nation's own efforts to provide growing numbers of good-quality hotel rooms, supported by diverse tourism infrastructure, facilities, and products. Cuba's tourism industry is different from most others in that it is nationally controlled. Private travel agencies have to negotiate with national representatives, with the underlying principle in Cuba being national development rather than private gain. Also, all of the dollars spent in Cuba are put into the national treasury, and profits by foreign private entities that operate on the island are limited (Cervino and Cubillo 2005).

I suggest that a Global Commodity Chains (GCC) approach is helpful in mapping out the geography and organization of the different segments involved in the Cuban tourism industry. A commodity chain analysis examines the linkages between raw materials, production, distribution, marketing and advertising, and consumption of a particular good or service. …