Rum, Castro, vintage cars and lively music: welcome to Cuba. The largest and westernmost island of the West Indies group has a rocky human rights history, but since 2009 recent advancements have led to a booming tourism industry. Cuba has numerous smaller islands, islets, and cays and is home to both stunning beaches, bustling cities and mountainous regions. As of 2015, Cuba had a population of ~11.2 million, with the Capital and largest city Havana home to 2.11 million locals.
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Cuba is located 90 mi (145 km) south of Key West, Florida (USA) and west of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The island nation has a fascinating history and one worth understanding before visiting Cuba. The Arawak (or Taino) people were the original inhabitants of Cuba, until Columbus landed on the island in 1492. By 1511 the Spaniards had established settlements in Cuba and used Havana’s harbour as a common point for Spanish transit.
In 1895, Spanish rule ended with intervention by the USA – Cuba was made an independent republic under USA protection. This was the beginning of a very drawn out (and sometime ugly) relationship between Cuba and the USA that is still being written today. The USA occupation of Cuba ended in 1902, however the ‘Platt Amendment’ allowed the USA to intervene in Cuba’s affairs until 1934.
In the early 1930’s a group of army officers over threw the Cuban government and ran a corrupt police state under president Fulgencio Batista. In 1956, Fidel Castro Ruz launched a revolution from his camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The USA initially welcomed the new-look democratic Cuba, but within a few months, Castro showed his true intensions by establishing military tribunals for political opponents – many hundreds of people were jailed.
Castro renounced Cuba’s military pact with the USA and in response the USA officially broke relations with Cuba in 1961 – Castro formalized his alliance with the Soviet Union. 1000s of Cubans fled the country during this period. The Russian and USA relations were also strained in the early 1960s when the Soviets attempted to install medium-range missiles in Cuba, capable of striking targets in the USA. However, in 1962 Russia agreed to dismantle the missile sites and have them returned to the USSR, in return for a pledge by the USA not to attack Cuba.
Russian aid to Cuba ended when Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1990 and Cuba’s experienced a severe economic crisis. Under Castro’s rule, Cuba had developed a terrible human rights record and in response several USA embargos were introduced. In early 2008, Fidel Castro ended 49 years of power when he announced his retirement. Raúl Castro succeeded his brother, becoming the new president of Cuba. In 2009, Cuba started to show signs of cooperating with the international community. In the following years the new leader made several changes and announcements that has allowed international tourism to flourish in the region, such decisions include:
- The United Nations Human Rights Council were allowed to examine Cuba at will
- Land restrictions for private farmers were relaxed
- Appointing a ‘non-Castro’ (José Ramón Machado) to fill the second-highest position in the Communist Party
- Trading cars became legal
- The Cuban government pardoned more than 2,900 prisoners (including 86 foreigners).
- Cubans could leave the country on vacations or forever. Locals no longer required an exit visa when leaving the country, simply a passport
In response, the USA repealed the long-standing restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Havana and sending money into the country. In 2014, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama – the first time the countries’ leaders held a face-to-face meeting in more than 50 years. The USA and Cuba have vowed to open embassies in both countries.
In 2014 Cuba welcomed a record 3 million international tourists, a figure which is expected to continue rising.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Gifts and Money:
With fixed wages and prices, little entrepreneurial opportunity and pricey imported goods it is difficult for Cubans to access the usual resources and tools needed to take control of, and boost their quality of life.
Visitors to the main cities and tourist points may experience begging by being approached by someone who will explain their sad family situation in a respectful way. It is also quite often noted in guides that items such as soap and pens are hard to come by and expensive and so they suggest to visitors to bring them in as gifts. As in any country, although very tempting, giving money and items directly to local people, adult or children, out of sympathy can have longer term negative consequences – it reinforces a power relationship with tourists, and discourages respectful exchange. There are several sustainable and healthy ways one can contribute in Cuba:
- If shopping for several items, buy from different places to spread income around
- Support someone in need positively by purchasing an item or service from them, such as a cone of peanuts, fruit or a rickshaw ride ^
- Learn some Spanish to enable you to express respect easily during interactions
- Do some research and then give to your chosen local charity or institution following their official procedure
- Always tip in restaurants, pay the toilet attendant and keep coins for musicians
^In some touristic towns, you may find people dressed in traditional garments requesting a coin for a photo. To read Tourism Concern’s advice on photography in Cuba, please see the ‘Culture’ tab.
All Inclusives & Economic Leakage:
All-inclusives can alienate tourists from the destination they are visiting and the people who live there. This is particularly noticeable in Cuba where access to western ‘luxury’ goods and lifestyles is limited outside of international hotels. During an all-inclusive holiday, positive cultural exchange is hampered, while resentment can build among local people who are blocked from being able to benefit from the tourism economy.
Various negative issues have been identified, including poor working conditions and huge environmental impacts such as water wastage & domestic waste. The largest concern is the decreased patronage to local businesses, such as restaurants, shops, taxi drivers and small guest houses – as guests are deterred from leaving the hotel grounds.
The way in which the industry is organized means that, for the most part, consumers spend much of their holiday budget in buying the package before they leave home. This cash goes into the pockets of foreign owned companies in the host countries: not many nationals of poor countries get to own marble-floored hotels, shopping chains or flashy restaurants serving fusion food.
Statistics vary; but some people argue that what is known as economic ‘leakage’ – the extent to which local economies lose (or never receive) the revenue generated by tourism – is as high as four-fifths the cost of a holiday. Even if it’s not that high, leakage remains a serious problem for most host countries.
We are calling for tour operators and hotels to take a rights-based approach to sustainability, and to undertake due diligence throughout their supply chains in order to identify and address the negative impacts of the all-inclusives power play, and race to the bottom that this entails.
You, the tourist, can also make a difference by opting for holidays that offer a fair deal for local businesses and people. In many cases half-board or Bed & breakfast options are cheaper options and provide you with a far greater level of freedom & choice!
Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned around the impacts of all-inclusives and have published various reports on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on All-inclusives:
With its friendly and vibrant people living unfamiliar lives in interesting and beautiful surroundings, Cuba to a western tourist, is a photo paradise. However, even better than taking photos of strangers and their children is the memorable experience of wandering and mingling in the safe streets, sitting outside on balmy evenings or talking with local people, with the cameras saved for more appropriate moments.
Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of the friendly people of Cuba is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.
As Cuba becomes more developed and host to more and more visitors, there is no doubt that wildlife will feel the strain. Deforestation and over-fishing are already a concern in some areas, and coral habitats are predicted to soon come under major threat from rapidly increasing numbers of diving tours. To read more about marine tourism in Cuba, and responsible diving and snorkelling, please visit Right Tourism.
Tourists use more water than the ordinary consumer. Indeed, the water ‘footprint’ of the Western world, as with our carbon footprint, is very high. There are already serious water shortages worldwide and a prediction of ‘water wars’.
The United Nations has claimed that ‘The average tourist uses as much water in 24 hours as a third world villager would use to produce rice for 100 days.’ Tourists need unlimited supplies of water – they are used to it at home and desire copious amounts on holiday: for drinking, baths and showers, laundry, swimming pools, overflowing fountains and green manicured lawns.
But water, in developing countries like Cuba, is a precious commodity. Worldwide, more than 2 billion people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and 80 per cent of all deaths in the developing world are water related. Put a hotel near a local community and the pressure on the water supply is acute.
Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned on water equity and has published reports and articles on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles:
Tourism in most places is highly seasonal, and during peak weeks, massive influxes of visitors enter a destination during a short period of time. As it becomes ever-popular throughout the year, Cuba’s increased number of tourists is placing stress on the local environment and infrastructure. Waste resulting from tourism remains a challenge in the Caribbean, regular garbage collection and beautification of beaches are required to keep the resort locations attractive.
Weather in Cuba is tropical, it usually remains between 20 and 32 degrees C all year around, including at night as the humid air keeps the heat close. The high humidity also means that it usually feels a great deal hotter and more oppressive than what the thermometer indicates. Cuba enjoys hours of glorious sunshine on most days, with brief, cooling rainstorms arriving throughout the year, but more frequently during the wet season between June and October. This period is also known to bring some of the Caribbean’s trademark hurricanes, as well as the highest temperatures. To the south, the stunning Caribbean coast provides little escape from the heat, with the water feeling almost bath-like in places. The Atlantic ocean to the north remains a couple of degrees cooler than the southern waters, and delivers a delightfully fresher breeze.
A difficult political and economic history has brought mixed blessings to the environment in Cuba, with the US trade and travel embargo cited as the main contributor. Mass-production and intensive farming has, so far, been minimised due to lack of resources and demand, as has the market saturation of chemicals, materials and products which can devastate environments (in relation to other countries). However, this has also meant that over recent decades, Cuba has been unable to progress into the use of modern, less-devastating methods and products.
Cuba’s iconic vehicles represent this dilemma: on the one hand, the rate of automobile ownership is low compared to other countries. In rural areas horse and carriage riding, hitchhiking and farming with bulls is very common still, meaning pollution and heavy road infrastructure is somewhat minimised. However, with no car building industry, and very expensive imports, a significant proportion of the road traffic consists of pre-revolution American saloon cars and chunky soviet vehicles both containing heavy diesel engines choking out thick black fumes.
It is the hope that, with the relaxing of trade and travel laws, environmental impact of any further development will be closely considered.
Cubans are naturally very easygoing, sociable and accommodating, so will appreciate simple common-sense respect and international politeness. It is useful, however, to be aware of the following specific points:
- Do not ask a local person directly about their thoughts on the political situation in Cuba as this will cause discomfort. However, he or she is likely to be happy to tell you about neutral aspects of everyday life.
- Expressing frustration, anger or irritability in public is not often seen.
- Cuban market stallholders pride themselves on offering the best handmade products. Talking about money in public and haggling is not overly common, so discussing quality, rather than the price, when deciding who to buy with can reduce awkwardness.
- Female travellers of any age will experience attention from Cuban males, also of any age. In most cases this will involve quite light-hearted comments in the street about your beauty. These should be simply ignored, or if you feel the need, respond with a polite smile. It is rare to feel unsafe, intimidation or aggression, but to avoid chances of this; it is advised to not walk alone at night.
- In a cafe or restaurant it is normal to wait for your ordered food for up to an hour, so it’s worth arriving slightly less than hungry and with time to spare to avoid annoyance.
- For Tourism Concern’s view on photography etiquette, see the ‘Culture’ tab.
Rice, eggs, bread and potatoes are the dominant staples, and a meal in most local restaurants and cafes will offer 1 or 2 staples with the addition of cheese, ham, pork, chicken, tuna, white fish or black beans (mixed with rice called ‘Christianos Y Moros’) but not much else. Vegetables vary seasonally, but typically a side-salad will consist of green beans, shredded cabbage, cucumber, beetroot and occasionally avocado and tomato. Fresh tropical fruit is found everywhere and served as breakfast or a starter.
Bananas are the best inter-meal delights, the small ones are intensely flavoursome, and the large underripe ones – also called plantain – are sliced and fried both soft and crispy as the savoury snack ‘tostones’. Alternative cuisine choice is available in towns and cities where there is some very good Italian food, but other international flavours are mostly only found in large hotels.
It is not advised to drink the tap water, and with convenience stores hard to come by, bottled water is sold mostly from cafes. If purchasing water in a bar, visitors may be surprised when it costs more than their rum cocktail… and as one of the largest producers or sugarcane, sugar is also used in excess; in coffee, fresh fruit juices and also in that cocktail.
Spanish is spoken by everyone in Cuba, and in places with high levels of tourism most Cubans will understand some English, and potentially a bit of German or Italian also. As always, it is appreciated if you make an effort to speak a few words of the local tounge. Try a couple of these Spanish phrases:
- Hola – Hello. / Hi.
- Buenos días – Good morning.
- Buenas tardes – Good afternoon. / Good evening.
Buenas Noches – Good Night
Donde estan los baños (‘banyos’)? / Hay (‘Eye’) baños? – Where are the toilets? / Are there toilets here?
Señor/ Señora, Puedo tomar un photo por favor? – Sir/ Madam, Can I take a photo please?
Tienes Agua Minerale? / Un botella (‘botaya’) de agua por favor – Do you have bottled water? / A bottle of water please.
The Communist regime banned religion in Cuba in the 1980s, but since then relaxation of law means religiosity is now accepted and visible. Roman Catholicism dominates, as it did before the revolution, and churches are located in the central plaza of most towns. Many Afro-Cubans have retained ancient African rituals and beliefs, some having combined these with elements of Catholicism. There exists a very small but growing Jewish and Muslim community (however, given the limited food choice in Cuba, finding a Halal or Kosher meal would be difficult – as so for vegans and full vegetarians).