Increase in tourism threatens to change Cuba

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Courtesy of Brian Teitelbaum

Americans generally have a very stoic idea of Cuba; they see it as an island isolated from the world and thus locked in its past. Many are of the opinion that now that relations between Cuba and the U.S. are reopened and economic sanctions slowly lifting, the island will transform from a 1960s society to an entrant in the modern world.

There were many vestiges of the 1960s still visible in the island, such as American cars imported over 50 years ago and building who were last painted while the Soviet Union still existed. Yet despite this we saw many more modern Hondas and Peugeots than retro Chevys and many young Cubans seemed to have a smartphone.

Cuba is far from isolated due to massive amounts of European and Canadian tourism and investment. Yet these Americans are not wrong, in my opinion; there are major changes that will happen in the coming years with the lifting of American economic sanctions.

The most obvious change I think will be the massive amount of American tourists who flood into the nation, though primarily into Havana.

A recent Gallup Poll found that 60 percent of Americans would travel to Cuba if given the opportunity. This sounds normal considering that Cuba is relatively easy to get to since it is 90 miles off Florida, blessed with incredible natural beauty and holds a forbidden fruit appeal in the American psyche. Yet this poll also means that almost 200 million Americans could pour into Cuba, focusing in Havana and strain the already limited hotel network while engulfing the bourgeoning restaurant industry.

Cubans are not unaccustomed to seeing Americans, yet the trickle of American tourism that existed before 2014 and continued into the lifting of restrictions has mainly been the more seasoned tourists, students or the “off-the-beaten-track” travelers.

In the coming months and years, however, Cuba will see a new American invasion with a very different type of invader. They’ll see a new American tourist: the gluttons, the spring breakers, the loud Americans and any other fanny pack-sporting travelers. With these come McDonalds, Taco Bells, Apple and Starbucks (which announced their first location opening in the capital soon). Havana is already being added on cruise ship lines as its proximity to the U.S. lends itself to being easily incorporated into the Caribbean routes. Pretty soon, there will be the cruise ship folks who barrage the city for a few hours and then retire to the buffets and pools of the ship.

Another change that might appear is a potentially large increase in small crimes. As it stands, Cuba is a policeman’s paradise: there are very few crimes committed, very few civilians own guns, and the culture overall is not violent.

Walking around Havana I did not feel unsafe, and despite the general attitude one should have when in a foreign country, my guard was pretty low. A political science professor at the University of Havana summed it up very well when he said, “when you ask a Mexican about the rise in crime in their country they talk about someone being beheaded three days ago in a suburb of Mexico City. When you ask a Cuban about the issue, they gripe about someone on the other side of the city having their purse snatched three weeks ago.”

Yet often when we saw small Cuban children they always asked us for money because their parents are now telling them about the rich doe-eyed tourists who will give small amounts of money to poor children. When these kids grow up, they will think that tourists are targets and thus there is a possibility that in the near future that Havana might witness a petty crime rate comparable to, say, Buenos Aires.

Many of the European and Canadian tourists, who have been frequenting Cuba for years, all said they rushed to see Cuba before “the Americans ruin it,” and ruin it we might. It would be a dark day if a tourist dropped in Havana finds it indistinguishable from San Juan or even Cancun.

But the Cubans are strong, resilient and fiercely proud of their culture, and I think that in the coming years, despite the onslaught of the Americans tourists and the trappings we bring, Cuba will retain its distinct cultural, political and social identity.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity provided by the school to travel around this island while the embargo is still in more or less intact.

I not only loved the country, but also the people who went on the mini-term: those you travel with can make or break the experience and those who went on it definitely made the trip for me.

In my opinion, Cuba will be a different place after the nation is opened up to American tourism, investment, and possible cultural imperialism.

The island probably won’t have the forbidden fruit air that it once had, since it will soon become an easily accessible travel destination. But even if you travel to Havana by ship or travel group and are directed to the tourist restaurants and cheap trinket markets, you can always find the real city, where the buildings are half crumbling, cigars and rum are cheap and where a Cuban talking to you isn’t trying to sell you anything, but just wants to strike up a conversation.

 

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