Threat posed by ‘good’ US tourism to Cuba
HAVANA: Central to US President Donald Trump’s plans to peel back his predecessor’s detente with Cuba is the idea that there is “good” and “bad” US travel. The US, Trump believes, can tightly regulate American holidays to deprive the Castro government of dollars and redirect the money to the island’s growing class of entrepreneurs.
But analysts say it will be difficult to pick winners in Cuba’s state-controlled economy, where government businesses and the private sector are thoroughly intertwined. And even harder will be determining what sort of travel constitutes the kind of “people-to-people” interactions the Trump administration says it wants to preserve.
By reinstating restrictions on independent travellers, the Trump administration’s new policy will hurt Cuba’s emerging private sector that caters to American visitors, critics insist.
It will herd Americans back toward the kind of prepackaged, predictable group tourism that the Cuban government actually prefers – and earns more revenue from.
The Trump plan, announced on Friday in Miami’s Little Havana neighbourhood, asserts that the Obama-era rules facilitated what the White House called “illegal” tourism by allowing US travellers to rent rooms in Cuban homes through sites such as Airbnb.
Americans will generally still be allowed to visit Cuba if they come on cruise ships, or book with US-approved tour agencies that ensure travel itineraries do not include too much unstructured time.
The complication for Trump’s rules, however, is large tour groups are too big for smaller B&Bs, and government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others after the openings spurred by Obama.
That, in turn, will cause a ripple effect. “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the B&Bs. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts,” said Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a highend boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse.
The 1934 mansion has an Italian restaurant on the ground floor, and Gallina estimates two-thirds of his guests are American, booking rooms through Airbnb, Expedia and other US sites.
“To be honest, Americans don’t have time to go to the beach, because they get absorbed into the city,” he said. “Independent travellers have more contact with real Cubans.”
Gallina employs 22 Cuban workers. If his bookings decline because of a travel crackdown, he said, he will probably turn to the European market and “tighten our belts.”
American travel to Cuba has been a political battleground since the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the island’s communist government starved for hard currency. As its resort industry grew and more visitors arrived, the Castro government’s enemies in Miami and in the halls of Congress fought to restrict Americans from going knowing their dollars could undermine efforts to choke the Cuban economy.
A group of American tourists take a guided bicycle tour in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday.