A grey November day in Toronto. Languidly ignoring the city grime, a bikini-clad bronzed mulatto woman lies stretched across the sooty behind of a downtown bus. The driver of a following car looks with some curiosity at this ad for southern sun, and notes with some surprise that the holiday it is selling is in neither Jamaica nor Puerto Rico, but Cuba.
After years of isolation, Cuba has come back into its own as one of the Caribbean’s hottest destinations. This kind of ‘come-on’ might suggest that Cuba has sold its soul for tourist dollars. The reality, however, is not that simple. The Cubans may have rediscovered the economic value of sun, sand and scenery. But they are cautious about turning back the clock to the days when Cuba hosted the most lurid tourist scenes in the Caribbean. The result is a tourist industry unlike any other; a curious blend of traditional Latin hedonism and socialist political principles.
Havana, before the 1959 revolution, was full of American-owned hotels and night-clubs, all of which housed a flourishing trade in gambling and prostitution. The city was lovingly referred to by those who hopped over from Miami as the ‘little Latin whorehouse’.
So when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, Fidel Castro and his rebels made a bee-line for the casinos. Within days the slot machines, roulette and blackjack tables had been smashed with sledgehammers, and Castro moved quickly in the following weeks to stop all gambling - right down to the number-taking at cigar stands.
The rebels hated the type of industry that Batista had nurtured. But they didn’t want to lose the nearly $50 million spent there annually by tourists. Unfortunately they had no choice. Tumultuous political relations with successive US administrations brought tourism to a grinding halt in the Sixties and it wasn’t until the early Seventies that in co-operation with a Canadian company, Unitours, the Cubans attempted to reinstate tourist relations with North America. Canada was always a prime target since it has always had friendly relations with Cuba.
Len Nathan of Fiesta Wayfarers Holidays Ltd. in Toronto says that although the old city hotels may not have changed architecturally they are no longer the ‘fleshpots’ they once were. It wasn’t hard, he says, to interest Canadians in making the early trips. Those who ventured down for some socialist sun were interested in being ‘the first guy on the block to see what was going on down there… They were tolerant tourists, and it was unique’.
The early years were somewhat makeshift. With little money available to sink into developing new facilities, the old private villas were converted into shared bungalows. But anyone who was looking for a lavish tropical holiday suffered a rude shock when water was only available for certain hours of the day and room service was a forgotten fringe benefit.
The drawing card for Cuba was (and still is) the price. The Dominican Republic aside, Cuba can be the cheapest vacation in the Caribbean. One price is all - inclusive: accommodation, transportation and all meals. There are no tips, no gratuities, no hidden service charges.
The North American market has always been the largest chunk of Cuba’s tourist business. Now there are 12 Canadian enterprises selling tourist packages, and many airlines flying scheduled and charter flights regularly.
The appeal has always been distinctly apolitical. Delores Maher, promotion director for the Cuban Tourist Board, says that her work has nothing to do with politics, that she’s just there to sell the product. Although her office is right next door to the Cuban Consulate in the heart of Toronto’s business district, she stresses that proximity is the only thing these two offices have in common. Surveys done on people returning from Cuban beaches indicate that many had pre-conceived notions that politics might be rammed down their throats. But they come back surprised, she says, by the friendliness and approachability of the average Cuban. People, Maher claims, are too busy making ends meet and getting the country back on its feet to worry about spouting the party line to foreigners.
The formula has obviously worked. Tourism has grown rapidly with 88,000 visitors in 1982. Canada was the biggest single source with 28,000 tourists, But more than 10,000 Mexicans also made treks to Cuba in 1982, while close to 15,000 guests arrived from the socialist countries and 19,752 came from Europe. Africa and Asia. The $61 million they spent is important to a country strapped for hard currency.
A new twist to the appeal of Cuba is the emphasis on things other than beaches. Visitors are being encouraged to travel from one end of the island to the other, seeing the Sierra Maestra mountains (famous as the hideout of the rebels in pre-revolutionary Cuba), tobacco farms, local vaqueros (cowboys) and historic cities.
In fact, until very recently tourists who were interested in more than vegetating on a beach had to book onto an educational or political tour. Travel throughout the island has never been formally restricted but making the voyage to Santiago, at the far end of the island from Havana, meant, prior to 1982, standing in long queues at the bus station. Getting a ticket was ‘iffy’ at best, not because of official sanctions on it, but because Cubans themselves are such voracious travellers that the availability of seating is tight. Now there are many cars for rent.
Cathy Smith, a Canadian journalist, was one of the first foreign tourists to climb on board a special VW microbus to take the fifteen-hour trip to Santiago. She felt a distinct difference, she says, in the people she met. In Havana and on the beach many of the Cubans who approached her were interested in changing pesos for dollars or buying blue jeans. But other Cubans were much less street-wise to foreigners.
‘Rudolfo (the guide) was able to give us first-hand accounts of the fighting in the Fifties and enthused us with his own feeling for his country. Many of the towns we stopped in were not the usual tourist spots and we were even more of a curiosity than we had been in Havana. The narrow streets and seventeenth - century buildings were an interesting contrast to the industrialization of the major cities.’
Len Nathan has a somewhat cynical view of why the Cubans are distributing the industry throughout the island. There’s concern, he conceded, about spreading employment around. But he also thinks they want to take political pressure off one particular part of the island. ‘The more you move them around, the less impact tourists have on any one area.’ It’s certainly open for discussion whether it’s better to divert the influx of foreigners to other parts of the country or to cloister them in one location. But to date there is no evidence of Cuban government paranoia at having the average Cuban gain exposure to foreigners.
Cuba’s tourist industry is different from most others in that it is nationally controlled. Whereas private agencies in the tourist-sending countries normally strike deals with an individual resort or hotel, for Cuba they have to barter with national representatives who are working to national plan. Cuba sends its reps all over the world and they are, says Nathan, as capitalist as they come when striking deals for the country. Once inexperienced and unsophisticated, they now know exactly what they want and how to get their own price.
Another consequence of national control is that all the dollars spent in the country go into the national coffers - whether you’re buying a drink or renting a surfboard. But the local people involved do benefit directly too. Cubans who work in the service areas connected with tourism are considered to have some of the country’s plum jobs. They are educated to present Cuba in its best light, with language and skill training in everything from hospitality to history. Workers at any of the resorts are among the most highly paid in the country.
But tourists are still inevitably accosted by the small-time operator in the streets looking for dollars, or the person who hangs around on the beach looking for blue jeans or trinkets. There is however no significant black-market in Cuba. Opinions differ on whether or not prostitution has been totally eradicated, but few tourists come back with stories about being solicited. In downtown Havana there are some young women who hang around parts of the old city and trade their services for foreign goods or money, but the trade is minuscule compared with other Caribbean countries.
Another distinctive aspect of Cuban tourism is safety. For women, the experience of being able to walk the streets without fear of harassment is significant given that there are few Latin American countries where women could even consider travelling unaccompanied by a man.
Gregg Eligh, a Toronto photographer recently commissioned by the Cuban Tourist Board, also noted a distinctive Cuban attitude towards women. ‘They told me that they found the "woman on the beach" approach objectionable because they’re conscious about looking chauvienistic. What they wanted were shots of people having a good time - so it looked like there was lots to do.’
Eligh’s photos did not seem to be all that far away from the age-old images of ‘beautiful people’ frolicking on the beach - or looking pensively out over a romantic balcony. But gone were the sexist shots of women which imply that they come along as part of the package deal. Official policy is that in future no woman may appear alone in an ad and indeed the largest part of Cuban advertising is non-sexist.
The Cuban tourist industry has come a long way from the whorehouse.
Cate Cochran is a Toronto-based freelancer who has lived in Cuba.