Cuba. On the Edge!

Visiting Cuba this week was a massive reminder of how important Tourism can be to many holiday destinations.

 Cuba is clearly on the brink of economic oblivion.

 The Trump administration back in June 2019, cut the lifeline of American Cruise lines depositing 6,000 trophy hunting Americans, that had been banned from visiting Cuban for 50 years, on its shores each day. Nobody in Cuba understands why their communist ethos, suddenly became unacceptable to the USA again or what would need to occur to earn a reprieve.

 As with many Cruise ship destinations, some locals regarded Cruise tourists as low value “ice-cream” eaters, who did not stay in local hotels and returned to the giant cruise ships each night to eat their meals. Crucially, however, the cruise tourist kept local clothes retailers and supermarkets well stocked, with the hard currencies they spent, used to fund Cuban food imports, given few people outside Cuba will accept the currency.

 Remove the Cruise customers and three years later virtually every cloth shop and tourist venue in Havana has closed making it a shopping ghost town, with few places to eat and drink. The lack of hard currency to buy imports is also causing major food shortages, with locals having to queue 6 hours a day to just secure the basics required for living.

 Although Cuba still feels relatively safe, it’s clearly teetering on the edge and its uncomfortable for well feed tourists to be constantly passing long queues of locals gathered outside every open shop in town. What was a must-do 2–3-day visit to Havana has now shrunk to a 1-day culture vulture tour, for some of the UK tourists visiting the beaches of Varadero.

 The lack of hard currency has also left an uncomfortable situation for tourists, where the back market exchange rate for the Cuban Peso is 120:1 pound, but the official tourism rate set by the Government is 30:1. So exchanging paper money gives 4 times the power of using a credit or debit card. So for once, my CannyApp FX card was left in the wallet as even I could not “Canny it” and save money.

 Not surprisingly, the biggest money local earner is exchanging tourist money. The first thing the Tui rep focused on during the inbound coach trip to the resort was getting their newly arrived guest to change £20 each into Pesos at a 1:60 rate. Potentially a good deal for the tourist compared to hotel prices, but clearly a better deal for the rep.

 This same sense of constant manipulation follows tourists everywhere in Cuba, with only the brave being willing to exchange cash on the streets and most looking for trusted intermeddles which are few and far between, as even most respectable Cubans are looking to grab as much hard currencies as possible ahead of an imminent economic collapse, they all seem to be expecting.

 Our Tui Dream liner was completely full of happy inbound tourists, and many will have had great holidays in Varadero having not left their All-Inclusive complex’s but is this sustainable or responsible tourism?

 The hard currency they deliver to the Cuban economy is vital to its economic survival, but questions remain over how long this can continue, as the average occupancy hotel is 12% or lower, making staffing and maintenance of hotels a real challenge.

 The impact of the Covid-19 shut down is everywhere, with even supposedly 5-star hotels looking tired and in need of repair, reducing them to 3-star equivalents. Unfortunately, as the tourism world emerges from Covid-19, I’d expect the same situation to exist in numerous previously popular destinations, such as Egypt, Gambia, and Morocco to name a few, which brings into question exactly how we define responsible tourism.

 Personally, I think it’s vital that we support countries like Cuba and help them through their crisis, but this will require travel businesses to remove the rose-tinted photos from websites and fully educate their customers on what they can expect for their hard-earned holiday money. It clearly goes further in places like Cuba but comes with some caveats.

 Customers also need to take a hard look at review sites, since average hotel scores, including pre-covid ratings, may often be misleading about the current situation. Even travel powerhouses like Spain are finding it difficult to persuade their population to return to hospitality jobs, making maintaining service levels hard as tourism returns. The travel agent “knowledge” network has never been more important to recommend the right destinations to customers.

 The future of travel is clearly bright again, but we will be faced by many new obstacles as travel re-emerges with short-term travel likely to be dominated by those destinations who can get their infrastructure working normally the quickest.

 In my opinion, this is likely to be Spain, Greece and potentially Turkey although it also has its own economic challenges.

 I love to travel but maybe more cautious in my choices for a while.

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