President Obama’s recent actions to facilitate the travel of American citizens, without prior official authorization, for specific issues such as work, education, sports, religion and cultural activities, and visits to relatives, anticipate an increase in the amount of travelers to the Caribbean island, which could lead to an overflow before the eventual elimination by the U.S. Congress of the trade embargo imposed since 1960.
Cuba has consolidated tourism as a strategic industry within its economic development, and it generates gross revenues in excess of $2 billion. Today, with a limited supply of accommodations, it is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, something which, in 2014, crowned it with a record number of foreign visitors, allowing it to surpass its target of 3 million.
The largest proportions of tourists are Canadian travelers; Europeans are next, led by Britain, Spain and Germany, and followed by some Latin American countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina. The North American presence is limited but relevant given the relational context. Last year, of the 700,000 people who left the United States for the island, more than 100,000 of them were tourists.
Tourism between the two countries, interrupted since the imposition of the embargo, was revived in 2011 when Obama started the détente with the introduction of the “Pueblo en Pueblo” program — strictly regulated — whose achievement was to promote the first wave of tourists as part of an exclusive program of educational, cultural and historical tours. The prohibition of enjoying leisure activities, as is the case with the “sun and sand” proposal, remained unchanged in recent actions.
However, an eventual end to restrictions would drive a high-level boom in tourism from the United States, whose short-term figures are estimated at 2 million travelers. This is the main constraint facing Cuba’s hotel industry, which is founded on the reduced quantity and quality of its infrastructure, despite the clear progress that has been made by the sector in recent years.
A massive influx of visitors from the north would threaten to collapse the local supply if we take into account that its main ports, such as Varadero and Cayo Coco, have exhausted the housing allotment, and expansion would need to take place in areas of scant tourism development where it is unlikely to achieve results in the medium term because of the state’s economic difficulties. Consequently, the American flow would eventually compete with traditional markets, those that have been nurtured and shielded in times of crisis, and a possible consequence would be an increase in prices of domestic tourist products, clearly affecting low- and middle-income visitors, primarily those from Latin American countries.
The United States and Cuba are betting heavily on the relaxation of tourism rules; which, prior to the arrival of Fidel (Castro) in 1959, involved an unusual and overflowing invasion of American tourists, which at that time left its mark on the main Antillean Island with the disagreeable cliché of being the world’s most ardent paradise of casinos and brothels. Now the revolution has the dilemma of deciding whether to shout at the North Americans: “vengan a casa” or “regresen a casa” — Yankees, “come home” or “go home,” respectively.
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