Before 1959 Cuba was one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations. When Batista was ousted, most foreigners stayed home. Apart from a handful of Russians, the beaches belonged to the Cubans throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, when tourism contributed virtually nothing to the nation’s coffers.
Havana’s view of tourism profoundly shifted with the demise of the Soviet Union. Cuba set itself an ambitious long-term goal of five million tourists annually by 2010. Tourism, however, peaked in 2005 at 2.3 million visitors, before falling off in 2006 and 2007, then recuperating to 2.43 million in 2009 (some 10 percent of all Caribbean arrivals, not bad considering that U.S. travelers are barred by their own government). Tourism earned Cuba US$2.4 billion in 2008, but fell 11 percent in 2009.
Canada accounted for 50 percent of arrivals in 2009 (almost all of it at all-inclusive beach resorts), followed by Great Britain, Italy, then Spain. Cuba is currently focusing on the former Soviet bloc market.
Despite having upgraded most of its hotel infrastructure to international standards, Cuba has failed to establish a significant level of repeat business because of poor service, lousy food, state-sponsored rip-offs, and outrageous prices. In March 2008, Cuba announced that it would build 30 new hotels by 2014 (including 10 in Havana)—ostensibly in the event that U.S. travel restrictions are lifted—complementing by 22 percent an existing crop of 47,000 hotel rooms that, in high season, is barely sufficient to keep up with existing demand. (Speculation that tourism infrastructure will buckle under the weight of a U.S. stampede seems misplaced. The Cuban government will likely opt to regulate the influx—by limiting aircraft landing rights and perhaps even introducing a visa system—until it can get its new infrastructure in place.)
The Ministry of Tourism oversees tourism development and acts as watchdog over state-owned agencies that operate autonomously with the authority to form joint-management agreements with foreign tourism companies. Since 2005 it has been run by a military figure, Manuel Marero Cruz, and has restructured hotel groups and taken over many tourism-related businesses under its own direction.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition