Tourism has exploded in Cuba since the Obama administration announced a resumption of diplomatic relations with the country in 2014.
Danilo Gomez is a law professor and, as is very common in Havana, is also employed in the tourist industry. He moonlights as a tour guide. Gomez says tourism has nearly doubled since the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, because Westerners want to see Cuba “before the Americans ruin it.” A million people a year used to visit Cuba, he says. Now it’s close to two million.
The huge influx in tourists exceeds Havana’s capacity. Demand exceeds supply, which means prices for everything a tourist might need are going up. A taxi ride that cost you $1 or $2 two years ago now costs $5. A stay at one of the ritziest hotels, Habana Libre, now costs $490 per night.
The price for a stay in a casa particular is also going up. A casa particular is an apartment owned and rented to tourists by a Cuban. We paid $80 a night for our two bedroom apartment, nearly double the amount we’d been told to expect by people who’d visited Havana a few years ago.
People are following the money
Many Cubans are leaving their chosen professions altogether to work in the tourism industry. It’s a no-brainer. You can make $40 a month working as a researcher, pharmacist, doctor or lawyer. Or you can make up to several hundred dollars a month as a taxi driver, tour guide, or manager of a casa particular.
Luis Solar, a pediatrician who works at Calixo Garcia Hospital, tells us he is worried about the exodus of physicians from the health care industry due to this trend. He admits to being tempted to leave the profession himself, but he doesn’t think he could bear to abandon the patients who depend on him every day.
The government invests significant resources in training physicians, and it sends hundreds of them to other Latin American countries every year to help with public health crises like outbreaks of dengue and Zika. Currently there is an ample supply of family doctors and specialists. But that may not be the case in the future, especially as more Americans visit the country, luring more people into the tourism industry to serve their needs.
The Americans are already here
It’s not just people from Europe who are worried about Americans ruining Cuba. Some Americans are worried about it too.
Doug Wageman and Kat Larson of Minneapolis, Minnesota decided to visit Cuba now, before hordes of other Americans clog the streets of Old Havana.
They traveled from Minneapolis to Mexico and from Mexico to Havana, opting to bypass the legal person-to-person category of travel.
Person-to-person travel requires you to have a daily schedule of meaningful contact with Cubans. Until recently, you had to go with a tour group that arranged the schedule for you. Now you can go by yourself.
But you still have to be able to show U.S. officials your schedule, describing the nature of your meaningful interactions with Cubans. Sitting in a Havana restaurant or on the beach in Varadero and beckoning to your Cuban waiter to bring you another mojito (por favor) does not count.
Is it tourism, or is it person-to-person travel? The distinction is becoming less clear.
Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton and Mercedes Mejia are in Cuba this week to cover the connections between Cuba and Michigan and opportunities for the future. You can find more of their stories here.