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Tourism in Cuba

Tourism in Cuba is an industry that generates over 2 million arrivals per year, and is one of the main sources of revenue for the island. With its favorable climate, beaches, colonial architecture and distinct cultural history, Cuba has long been an attractive destination for tourists. "Cuba treasures 253 protected areas, 257 national monuments, 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 7 Natural Biosphere Reserves and 13 Fauna Refuge among other non-tourist zones."

Having been Spain's closest colony to the United States until 1898, in the first part of the 20th century Cuba continued to benefit from big investments, creation of industries, and travel. Its proximity and close relation to the United States also helped Cuba's market economy prosper fairly quickly. As relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after the Cuban Revolution and the resulting expropriation and nationalization of businesses, the island became cut off from its traditional market by an embargo and a travel ban was imposed on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. The tourist industry declined to record low levels within two years of Castro's accession to power. Unlike the US, Canada normalized relations with Cuba in the 1970s and Canadians increasingly visited Cuba for vacations. Approximately one third of visitors to Cuba each year (in 2014) are Canadians. The Cuban government has moderated its nationalization policies and allowed for private business since 2011. It also pursues revitalization programs aimed at boosting tourism. United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015 and the tourism industry is expected to greatly benefit from normalized relations with US in the near future.


Until 1997, contacts between tourists and Cubans were de facto outlawed by the Communist regime. Following the collapse of Cuba's chief trading partner the Soviet Union, and the resulting economic crisis known as the Special Period, Cuba's government embarked on a major program to restore old hotels, remaining old pre-communism American cars, and restore several Havana streets to their former glory, as well as build beach resorts to bolster the tourist industry in order to bring in much needed finance to the island. To ensure the isolation of international tourism from the state isolated Cuban society, it was to be promoted in enclave resorts where, as much as possible, tourists would be segregated from Cuban society, known to as "enclave tourism" and "tourism apartheid". By the late 1990s, tourism surpassed Cuba's traditional export industry, sugar, as the nation's leading source of revenue. Visitors come primarily from Canada and western Europe and tourist areas are highly concentrated around Varadero, Cayo Coco, the beach areas north of Holguin, and Havana. The impact on Cuba's socialist society and economy has been significant. However, in recent years Cuba's tourism has decreased due to the economic recession, escalating foreign investment conflicts and fears, and internal economic restrictions. Since its reopening to tourism in the mid-1990s Cuba has not met the projected growth, has had relatively little restoration, and slow growth. A lack of foreign investment has also had a negative effect. Since then, the Dominican Republic has surpassed Cuba in tourism, new development, and investment.

Tourism by sector

Health tourism

As well as receiving traditional tourism revenues, Cuba attracts health tourists, generating annual revenues of around $40 million for the Cuban economy. Cuba has been a popular health tourism destination for more than 20 years. In 2005, more than 19,600 foreign patients traveled to Cuba for a wide range of treatments including eye surgery, neurologicaldisorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, and orthopaedics. Many patients are from Latin America, although medical treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, often known as night blindness, has attracted many patients from Europe and North America.

Some complaints have arisen that foreign "health tourists" paying with dollars receive a higher quality of care than do Cuban citizens. Former leading Cuban neurosurgeon and dissident Dr. Hilda Molina asserts that the central revolutionary objective of free, quality medical care for all has been eroded by Cuba's need for foreign currency. Molina says that following the economic collapse known in Cuba as the Special Period, the Cuban government established mechanisms designed to turn the medical system into a profit-making enterprise, thus creating a disparity in the quality of healthcare services between Cubans and foreigners.

Cultural tourism

Cuba has a rich mixture of various cultures of Europeans, Africans and natives. It is reflected in Cuban architecture, music, dance, food and handicrafts. Cuba is undertaking renovation programs of its cultural heritage sites such as colonial buildings in Havana and Matanzas

Sex tourism

Although Fidel Castro sought to eliminate prostitution after taking power, the discrepancy between typical Cuban wages (less than one US dollar per day) and the spending power of foreign tourists lures some Cubans, including minors, into prostitution. However, allegations of widespread sex tourism have been downplayed by Cuban justice minister Maria Esther Reus. According to the Miami Herald, prostitution is not illegal in Cuba, but procuring a prostitute for others is outlawed. The age of sexual consent on the island is 16. According to a travel advice website by the government of Canada, "Cuba is actively working to prevent child sex tourism, and a number of tourists, including Canadians, have been convicted of offences related to the corruption of minors aged 16 and under. Prison sentences range from 7 to 25 years." It is illegal to import, possess or produce pornography in Cuba.

While the growth of tourism has benefited the city of Havana economically, there have been several negative side effects. One such side effect is the revival of sex tourism in the city. Sex tourism was a central part of the tourism industry before the Revolution. However, after 1960, prostitution was essentially eradicated on the island due to government initiatives and a significant drop in demand as tourism was minimized. With tourism becoming more prevalent in the 1990s, however, so did the practice of prostitution. The demographic profile of tourists (the overwhelming majority being men between ages 25–60) is a key indicator of the existence of prostitution. Additionally, websites and magazines, such as Playboy, have outlined the opportunities for both heterosexual and homosexual sex tourism. According to Trumbull, many prostitutes engage in the practice out of economic necessity, but they do not work in oppressive conditions and a large number of prostitutes in contemporary Havana see the work as a way to earn a better living than if they were to work in open jobs throughout the city. Therefore, contemporary prostitution is different than the sex tourism of the 1950s in this regard.

Social impacts of tourism

As tourism played an increasing role in the economy, a large percentage of young people migrate to resort towns seeking employment in the tourism industry. Many of them working in menial jobs can earn more through tips than they can employed as professionals. Thus, there is an economic and social divide emerging in Cuba between those employed in the tourist industry and others.

Tourist vs Cuban hotels

Between 1992 and 2008, in order to gain the much-needed hard currency, some hotels and resorts were opened only to foreign tourists, leading to accusations of "tourism apartheid". The policy was reversed by the Cuban government in 2008.

Cuba's tourism policies of the early 1990s, which were driven by the government's pressing need to earn hard currency, had a major impact on the underlying egalitarianism espoused by the Cuban revolution. Two parallel economies and societies quickly emerged, divided by their access to the newly legalized U.S. dollar. Those having access to dollars through contact with the lucrative tourist industry suddenly found themselves at a distinct financial advantage over professional, industrial and agricultural workers.

To ensure the isolation of international tourism from Cuban society, tourism was to be promoted in enclave resorts where, as much as possible, tourists would be segregated from Cuban society. This was not lost on the average Cuban citizen, and the government tourism policy soon began to be referred to as "enclave tourism" and "tourism apartheid".

In 1992, as Cuba entered a period of severe economic austerity, Fidel Castro defended the newly instituted policies in a speech to the Cuban National Assembly. He described the moves as an economic necessity that would need to be maintained for as long as the country had a need for foreign currency. According to Castro, the government was "pondering formulas" that would allow Cubans to use some of the tourist facilities as a reward for outstanding work, but he believed that giving Cubans access to amenities at the expense of paying foreign tourists would ultimately be a counterproductive move for the economy.

Until 1997, contact between tourists and Cubans was de facto outlawed, and Cubans seen in contact with tourists were regarded as potential thieves by police. Global human-rights groups' complaints, and the upcoming visit of The Pope, helped cause an about-face, although such contact is still frowned upon. Police often demand identification checks of any Cubans seen in contact with tourists. Tourist identification is usually not checked unless the tourist has dark skin and is mistaken for Cuban. Despite the restrictions, average Cubans thrive on Cuba's tourist industry, and many simply see the policy as inevitable.

The policy of restricting certain hotels and services to tourists was ended by the government of Raúl Castro in March 2008. As well as officially allowing Cubans to stay in any hotel, the change also opened access to previously restricted areas such as Cayo Coco. However, access remains very limited in practice, as the vast majority of Cubans do not have access to the hard currency needed to stay in such hotels.

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