Cuba’s private economy sector, from casa particular owners to restauranteurs and independent shop owners, has been quick to express their disappointment and concern after the island’s tourism minister announced that they expect to close 2009 with 4.3 million visitors, down by 8.5% from the record-breaking 5 million figure they had initially predicted.
The news, echoed by Reuters earlier this month, comes at a really bad time for the Cuban government and Cuban citizens in particular, as the tourism boom in recent years had helped offset weaker exports and a steep decline in subsidised oil imports from Venezuela. As a result, the blow from President Trump is a really hard one to recover from, especially for the worst-impacted sector – Cuban entrepreneurs who are already experiencing a decrease in bookings (in the case of those who own a casa particular in Havana and elsewhere in the island) and diners, in the case of restauranteurs who are quick to voice their concerns.
In the words of Carlos Cristobal Marquez, owner of the San Cristobal paladar, where Obama dined on his historic trip to Havana in 2016:
“Our income has dropped by 80 percent. Many restaurants will have to close, while others will have a hard time. Trump has said he wants to support the private sector, but he isn’t,”
His troubles are echoed by Cuba’s tourism authorities, with tourism minister Manuel Marrero saying during a recent speech to the National Assembly that Trump’s new Cuba travel restrictions had already “sparked a 20.33% reduction in tourist activity”.
President Trump’s changes hurt Cuban entrepreneurs the most
Last month, President Trump’s administration announced a new set of rules regarding Cuba travel, restricting tourism flow to the island by discarding Obama’s people to people visas and replacing them with a “support for the Cuban people” permit that has been very damaging in the eyes of potential U.S. travellers to Cuba (and to those running casa particulares and paladares) even when, in truth, the new permit doesn’t vastly
differ from the previous president’s original Cuba travel license. It’s essentially the same minus its name, with the only addition of a list of banned hotels and government-run Cuban companies that U.S. citizens aren’t allowed to do business with. Aside from that very little has changed, and Americans are still free to travel to Cuba independently (and not necessarily through a tour operator) by booking their own commercial flights online (with a good number of direct U.S.-Cuba connections still in place) and arranging accommodation at a casa particular or one of the non-banned hotels in the U.S. Department of State (although the list of forbidden ones is quite extensive – there’s 115 of them islandwide!).
After Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba back in 2009 and the easing of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, U.S. visitors (among them Cuban-Americans visiting family and friends in the island) quickly became the second-biggest group of travellers to Cuba, only surpassed by Canadians and with cruise travellers accounting for half of them, according to Reuters. Just to think that those figures have been halved can put into perspective how dire things are looking for Cuba’s private economy sector especially, given that many entrepreneurs launched their business expecting to cater to an increasing influx of American visitors, the biggest spenders out of all foreign travellers.
Casa particular owners are just as affected as restauranteurs in Cuba, given that, despite the fact that the halt in cruise visitors doesn’t directly affect them, the message that Trump’s administration sends with the new rollbacks makes travel to Cuba less appealing to U.S. visitors.
Taking the blockade further – a new implementation of the Helms Burton Law
The other big problem that the Cuban tourism industry is currently facing is yet another Trump intervention, as back in April the U.S. president’s administration announced the enforcement of one of the embargo rules that had never been enforced by previous American presidents since the Helms-Burton Act of 1995. The law allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign companies operating in properties confiscated from U.S. owners after the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the nationalisation of private U.S. property in the island. As of now, several foreign hotel chains operating in Cuba (like Meliá and Iberostar) have been sued as well as one unite of online travel agency Expedia. Luckily, this move doesn’t affect casas particulares in Havana or elsewhere islandwide at all (if anything it could benefit them) but other Cuban entrepreneurs working in the tourism sector are concerned.
Long-term view – a brighter the future?
Regardless, Cuba doesn’t lose faith, and even when many casa particular hosts are somewhat disheartened, they still believe that things will change and the future will brighten up again. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism is also hopeful despite it all and cranes in Havana continue in place building Cuba’s first generation of ultra-luxurious hotels to attract an upscale market that the island didn’t cater to before.
Said new Cuba hotels still under construction were precisely seeking to attract the most discerning segment of U.S. travellers, especially affluent visitors (Madonna, Beyonce, Mick Jagger – the Rolling Stones gave a massive concert in Havana back in March 2016 -, Katy Perry and Rihanna all stayed at the one hotel deemed the most luxurious in Havana – the Saratoga) who found the current hotel offering lacking (even those hotels in Cuba that were self-described as five-star properties).
The outlook for casa particular owners
While the Cuban government says that tourism development will continue as planned in the island despite Trump’s new travel restrictions, hosts at casas particulares can look forward to new attractions and more modern infrastructure attracting more potential tourists. On the way are new dolphinariums and amusement park, expected to become the island’s finest.
Also, if José Luis Perelló’s opinion is to be taken into account, the short-term shifts in U.S.-Cuba policy shouldn’t be taken too seriously and are not likely to affect long-term tourism on the island. The former professor at the University of Havana who studies the island’s tourism industry says Cuba’s appeal will not diminish in the next few years and Cuban authorities, knowing this, will continue to develop tourism. Something that Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel has recently confirmed:
A large part of the revenues we use weekly… comes from tourism, for this reason, we must continue betting on the development of tourism.