How Will a Booming Tourism Industry Affect Cuba?

For decades, Cuba’s tourism marketing has depended upon the Caribbean island’s unique aesthetics as a major selling point for tourists. Images of Cuba evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. Crumbling architecture and classic cars combine with lively Afro-Cuban music and miles of white-sand beaches. Talk to a traveller after their Cuba trip, and their mantra often centers on one key refrain: “Go, now. Go before it changes.” The thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba over the past year is a defining factor for many travellers issuing the imperative to visit quickly. Throughout 2016, the U.S. will continue to ease travel restrictions for Americans visiting Cuba. With this change imminent, it has many wondering if visiting Cuba will be as interesting once the island is flooded with a new wave of tourism. Evidence shows the increase in tourism is already beginning. Which begs an important question. Can Cuba’s creaky infrastructure, pristine nature, and nuanced culture — all a part of the country’s tourism appeal — support the demands of more people taxing the island’s resources?

Long before the talks began between the U.S. and Cuba, the country was already a popular tourist destination; it’s the second most visited Caribbean island. To that end, the country continues to show strong annual growth, with Cuba welcoming more than 3.5 million tourists from all over the world in 2015. Even more, the country pioneered a new form of tourism back in 1997. Cuba’s network of casa particulares — a government-sanctioned homestay programme — can be thought of as a precursor to the AirBnB style of accommodation. All this to say, Cuba’s not an “unknown frontier” for many travellers.

But even with Cuba’s strong existing tourism industry, the shifting relationship with the U.S. is a game-changer. And 2016 is the year it’s all set to change. Barack Obama made a historic visit to Cuba last month; he is the first U.S. president to visit the country in 88 years. In March, President Obama also announced yet another easing of restrictions for Americans interested in travelling to the island nation — the ability to obtain a visa for “people to people” educational visits. This comes on the heels of evidence already showing a massive growth in interest from from U.S. travellers. And by the end of the year, many mainstream U.S. airlines are planning direct routes into Havana from most major U.S. cities.

The facts are clear. The airlines, travellers, and the U.S. government anticipate tourism to Cuba to rise. The opening of Cuba’s tourism industry to the country’s larger northern neighbor is a huge opportunity. And it’s an inevitability. But with this new opportunity comes pressing concerns. There are real reasons to look closely at the potential negative impact tourism growth may have on the country’s infrastructure, economy, and cultural heritage. The WTTC’s recently released economic impact data for Cuba highlights some areas of concern.

Over the next ten years, Cuba ranks at number 30 in the world in terms of growth in foreign visitor spending. While this is promising, capital investment and government expenditure growth are both lagging. And, most worrying, more spending by international tourists may not transform into more jobs for Cubans. Despite the predicted tourism growths, tourism employment is only expected to grow by 1.7% per year over the next ten years — a number that doesn’t match the anticipated visitor growth.

As interest from the U.S. and European markets grows, the Cuban tourism industry may not be ready to handle that increase in the Travel & Tourism sector. In addition to concerns about job growth, many are concerned about the impact of tourists on the country’s well-preserved natural environment. Cuba boasts the Caribbean’s most pristine coral reefs, beautiful national parks, and well-maintained organic farms. Cuba has strong environmental laws and a commitment to environmental protection. Only time will tell how these protections hold up in the face of increased money flowing into remote areas of the country.

Those in charge of tourism in Cuba should take heed: plan for growth, ensure it is managed sustainably, and invest in necessary infrastructure. Underlying all of this is also the need for a large-scale effort to preserve Cuba’s unique cultural heritage. As tourism numbers grow in Cuba, the tourism industry, the government, and travellers should work together to create an industry that values that je ne sais quoi that has long drawn tourism to the island. This includes preserving those nostalgia-inducing images of Cuba — the architecture, history, and buildings. But it also includes preserving those things far less tangible. Cuba’s important cultural heritage includes its unique blend of Afro-Cuban culture, the island’s flare for song and dance, traditional cigar rolling, and an iconic, laid-back friendliness endemic to this spot in the Caribbean.

To protect the country’s tangible and intangible heritage, the island’s tourism department needs to ensure inclusive growth. Only growth that involves and affects the whole population will add real value to the lives of everyday Cubans. More than simply increasing tourism, this potential influx of people and resources has the opportunity to create a strong, sustainable Cuba that models responsible tourism for generations to come.