Cuba’s Private-Sector Tourism Industry Grows
HAVANA – The non-state portion of Cuba’s tourism industry already boasts 8,000 rooms and continues to grow, official daily Juventud Rebelde said Friday, citing Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero.
The minister made the comments Wednesday during an event at the seaside resort of Varadero.
Cuba’s tourism sector enjoyed a “magnificent” first quarter as international arrivals increased by 15 percent, according to Marrero.
“We expect that the rest of 2015 will be very good,” he added.
Cuba currently has roughly 1,600 “paladares” – privately owned restaurants – as well as 8,000 private lodgings, equivalent to 13 percent of the 60,000 rooms in state-run hotels.
The growth of non-state tourism enterprises is a result of economic reforms launched in 2010 by the government of President Raul Castro to promote entrepreneurship.
Additionally, in 2013 the government authorized travel agencies to sign contracts with private hospitality businesses.
An increase in hotel and restaurant capacity is vital for the Caribbean country, whose tourism infrastructure faces the possibility of being overwhelmed when and if Washington eliminates all restrictions on U.S. residents’ travel to Cuba.
Cuba received 1 million foreign tourists in January-March, with Canada on top of the list of source countries, followed by Germany, France, Britain and Italy.
Last year, Cuba surpassed 3 million foreign visitors for the first time.
Tourism has become the Communist-ruled island’s No. 2 source of hard currency, behind fees for professional services.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Thursday, April 2, 2015
The popular online home-rental service Airbnb will allow American travelers to book lodging in Cuba starting Thursday in the most significant U.S. business expansion on the island since the declaration of detente between the two countries late last year.
For a half-century, the U.S. trade embargo has blocked such businesses from entering the Cuban market. In January, however, the Obama administration loosened a series of restrictions on U.S. business in an attempt to encourage the growth of the island's small private sector.
Airbnb searches for "Cuba" will now turn up more than 1,000 properties across the island, with 40 percent in Havana and the rest in tourist destinations such as Cienfuegos a few hours away on the southern coast. The company has been sending teams of representatives to Cuba for three months to sign up home owners, and plans to expand steadily in coming months.
"We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb's biggest markets in Latin America," said Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb, the website and mobile app that allows users to book rooms in more than 1 million private homes around the world. "We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago."
One of the most developed and important elements of Cuba's entrepreneurial sector is a network of thousands of privately owned rooms and houses for tourists. Starting in the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s as homey, bed and breakfast-style alternatives to Cuba's generally grim state-run hotels, "casas particulares," or private homes, have expanded into an industry with options ranging from small apartments in central Havana to multi-room beach houses with top-notch food and maid service.
The Airbnb announcement is the latest in a series of U.S. business moves into Cuba. In February, New Jersey-based IDT Corp. and Cuban state telecoms firm ETECSA agreed to connect phone calls from the United States directly to Cuba. Previously, they were routed through third countries such as Italy and Spain.
Netflix and MasterCard have also unblocked their services in Cuba, but only a handful of islanders have connections fast enough to stream Netflix, and most credit-card issuers still prohibit transactions from Cuba, making MasterCard's move largely symbolic so far.
The Airbnb move could be the most significant development in terms of putting money in the pockets of entrepreneurs across the island and bolstering them in a stagnant state-run economy — leading goals for the Obama administration in warming relations with Cuba.
"I think this is going to help our business prosper, to definitely improve, not just private business, but everything here," said Israel Rivero, who owns an immaculately renovated, pre-war apartment in central Havana. He charges $25 a night per room, but the price will go to $30 on Airbnb to cover fees and currency exchange costs.
Kuehne said Airbnb's plans had been welcomed by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Cuba has been wrestling with how to accommodate a surge of travelers since the announcement of detente. Trips to the island have been up nearly 20 percent in recent months, mostly by non-U.S. travelers, and many hotels are fully booked, particularly the few able to offer service close to international standards.
For the time being, non-U.S. travelers will not be able to use Airbnb.
Because of continuing restrictions under the U.S. embargo, the company's Cuba listing will only be available to U.S. travelers visiting under one of 12 U.S.-government approved categories of legal travel, ranging from professional research to religious activities.
While virtually all U.S. travel to Cuba previously required individual licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department, the January changes essentially shift it to an honor system by allowing travelers to fill out a form asserting they are going for one of the approved purposes.
A major drawback for the Cuban private lodging business has been the difficulty of renting from overseas on an island with one of the world's lower rates of Internet penetration and a constantly malfunctioning phone system. While dozens of websites such as TripAdvisor have listings for lodgings, most only provide phone numbers or email addresses for owners instead of the quick online booking and guaranteed reservations that Airbnb will offer, as it does in more than 190 countries.
"Our plan is to make it substantially easier," Kuehne said.
While that sentiment holds for travelers, owners still have to grapple with the lack of access to the Internet across the island. Most will have to turn to pricey state-run Internet centers or hotel lobbies to check on reservations. And with much of the international banking system off-limits to Cubans due to U.S. sanctions, owners will depend on friends or business associates to receive payments from Airbnb in non-U.S. bank accounts.
Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the largest firms organizing group tours to Cuba, said home owners have already been investing in amenities such as central air conditioning and improved water pressure in order to be able to charge far more than $25 a night for basic service.
"You're starting to see places that can compete with three- and four-star hotels," Laverty said.
Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
March 31, 2015 by Lisandro Pérez
A New Era? The Outlook for U.S.-Cuba Academic Relations
A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations was ushered in on December 17th when the presidents of both countries announced they were prepared to end nearly six decades of estrangement. I had nearly lost hope that in my lifetime there would be a rapprochement between my adopted nation and the island where I was born and which I left 55 years ago with my parents.
I have made the study of my homeland my academic career, so I could not be more thrilled about the prospect of a normalization of relations. I also welcome the evident rise in interest in Cuba among universities and nonprofits in the United States since the announcement. In February I participated as a panelist in a teleconference on Cubaorganized by the Institute of International Education. The event drew an audience of some 180 representatives of colleges, universities, and academic organizations from throughout the country.
For those in the academic and nonprofit sectors who are planning Cuba-related activities for the first time, it is important to realize that, unlike what many are assuming here in the United States, things have not suddenly changed and, in fact, some of the more challenging aspects of establishing academic contacts with Cuba are not likely to change anytime soon. The success of any institution venturing into the Cuba field will depend on having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished, familiarity with a fairly unique context for international academic relations, and an ability to overcome frustrations and obstacles.
The keys are: pragmatism, perseverance, and patience.
One reason the December 17th announcement is not a game changer in terms of academic contacts is that such contacts have long been allowed by both governments, albeit with difficulties. The U.S. embargo has for years exempted legitimate academic travel from its provisions. Strong academic ties and friendships have been forged through the years despite the history of hostility between the two governments. Cuban participation in the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), for example, dates back to the early 1970s, and the association’s Cuba section, which I am privileged to co-chair this year with a colleague and friend from Cuba, now numbers 533 members with an almost even representation of Cuban and non-Cuban members. Cuban-American scholars have been among those who have worked to strengthen those ties, along with colleagues from throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the hemisphere. Many colleges and universities in the United States have years of experience sending their students to Cuba.
Those who have engaged in those contacts, however, have faced stiff challenges, challenges that are likely to persist into a new era of relations. Both governments, for example, have frequently used political criteria to grant or deny visas to scholars.
But perhaps the greatest source of frustration when one engages with Cuba is that any visit to the island for academic purposes must go through official channels. Although the United States still does not allow tourist travel to Cuba, the Cubans will normally issue a tourist visa to the bearer of a U.S. passport. But that tourist visa cannot be used to enter Cuba for purposes other than tourism, such as research or study. Visas for academic activities are issued by the Foreign Ministry once it approves a formal request from an academic or research entity that has reviewed the purpose and plan for the trip. The Cuban entity then becomes responsible for the visitors, even arranging logistics, such as charter buses for student groups, as most such needs are provided only by state enterprises.
The review and approval process results in a backlog of requests from U.S. scholars and universities to visit the island. The entity that up to now has shouldered the burden of processing those proposals is the Office of International Relations of the University of Havana, although other state-affiliated intellectual, research, and cultural organizations have also served as hosts for visitors. This process of official approval for visits or programs causes a severe funnel effect that requires partners in the United States to make plans as far in advance as possible, be flexible on dates, and have patience.
Newcomers to Cuba exchanges should be keenly aware that the island’s academic, research, and cultural institutions are very rich in intellectual resources. The range and depth of the scholarship is impressive and builds on a strong tradition of intellectual work that dates back to the early 19th century. This May’s annual LASA Congress has 368 colleagues from Cuba on the program.
Knowledge of the history of academic contact and of the intellectual richness found in the island’s institutions is important in order to avoid approaching Cuba with a Columbus-like attitude. It is important to follow the universal norms of international scholarly engagement: respect and reciprocity. Don’t just ask what you or your students can get out of establishing ties with Cuba. Bring something to the table that would be of interest to your Cuban counterparts. Figure out how Cuban scholars can enrich your institution’s research and teaching, and find a way to facilitate that by inviting them to your campus. Travel abroad is highly valued by Cuban colleagues.
While Cuban academic institutions are rich in intellectual resources, they are poor in material resources. At present, exchanges have to be funded entirely by the U.S. side. Visitors from Cuba must be fully sponsored, and academics from the United States must have their own sources of support when traveling to Cuba. Even when and if it becomes possible, it is not likely that Cuban students coming to the United States to enroll in degree programs will be self-supporting.
A select group of foundations and other nonprofits in the United States have long supported and facilitated Cuban academic exchanges. The Ford and the Christopher Reynolds Foundations, as well as the Social Science Research Council stand out in this regard. Hopefully, this new opening in relations will encourage other organizations to support academic and cultural ties with Cuba. The Institute of International Education has signaled its intention to be a player in expanding U.S.-Cuba partnerships.
This new era of bilateral relations may make it possible for Cuba to be included in the many international education programs funded by the U.S. government, something that has long been barred not just by Washington, but also by Havana. Thus far, the only noteworthy U.S. government support for work on Cuba is the Department of State’sUSAID program that funds surreptitious activities in the island designed to bring about changes in the Cuban political system. Not surprisingly, the Cuban government has forbidden the island’s educational and academic institutions from entering into projects that have U.S. government support.
When and if legitimate U.S. government programs, such as the Fulbright and Benjamin Gilman awards and U.S. Department of Education institutional grants for international study, are opened up to participation by Cuban scholars and Cuba-bound scholars and students in the United States, it is likely that Cuban officials will permit participation in such programs. That would have a huge impact, as would the possibility that Cuban institutions and scholars may apply directly to U.S. sources of support, public and private.
Cuba is a uniquely fascinating place because of the resilience and warmth of its people, its extraordinary and frequently tragic history at the crossroads of the hemisphere and in the cross hairs of the United States, its tradition of resistance and revolution, and the complex mosaic of its culture and artistic expressions. That is why I cringe when I hear people say they want to experience Cuba “before it changes,” as if its principal value could be reduced to a Cold War tropical theme park, with its quaintly decaying buildings and vintage Chevys and Fords. Cuban history, society, and culture offer much richer learning opportunities, beyond the nostalgic allure of its frozen-in-time landscape.
Lisandro Pérez is a professor and chair of the department of Latin American and Latina/o studies at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
An excellent summary. Three additions: