Tourism boom leaves some Cubans feel­ing left out


This 500-year-old city smells fresh paint and var­nish.

Res­i­dents stroll along a re­cently com­pleted har­bor prom­e­nade un­der gleam­ing new street­lights, en­joy­ing sea breezes while re­lax­ing on newly in­stalled me­tal benches.

Miss­ing are the tourists. As for­eign visi­tors flood Ha­vana and a se­lect group of other colo­nial cities and beach re­sorts, Cuba’s sec­ond-largest city is suf­fer­ing a tourist drought.

San­ti­ago saw less than a tenth of the tourist traf­fic in Ha­vana last year and less than a 20th of the visi­tors to the beach re­sort of Va­radero even amid large-scale gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment in ren­o­vat­ing the city for its 500th an­niver­sary this sum­mer. Other Cuban cities are see­ing sim­i­larly stag­nant visi­tor num­bers de­spite the dra­matic surge in over­all tourism set off by the an­nounce­ment of de­tente be­tween the U.S. and Cuba.

That’s rais­ing con­cerns that a ris­ing tide of tourist dol­lars will leave some ar­eas of Cuba boom­ing and oth­ers strug­gling against a back­drop of broader eco­nomic stag­na­tion.

“They’re pro­mot­ing Ha­vana and the cen­ter of the coun­try but they’ve for­got­ten about San­ti­ago,” said Gla­dys Domenech, who rents tourists a room in her home in the his­toric cen­ter that fea­tures a ter­race with a sweep­ing view of the Caribbean.


The city sits about 800 kilo­me­ters east of Ha­vana on highways that nar­row out­side the cap­i­tal to hor­rif­i­cally rut­ted roads clogged with horse carts, bi­cy­clists and stray cows. The jour­ney by road can last 15 hours, and far longer in Cuba’s no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able and un­com­fort­able in­ter­city buses. Train and do­mes­tic plane tick­ets are vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain with­out wait­ing hours in lines that may or may not end in sat­is­fac­tion. There are only three flights a week from the U.S.

‘Trans­port is vi­tal’

Cruise ships pro­vide a promis­ing new po­ten­tial source of visi­tors, although dock­ings here re­main rel­a­tively rare.

“It’s tough for those who go to Ha­vana and want to come here,” said Vir­gen Maria Jerez, owner of an el­e­gant pri­vate res­tau­rant near Domenech’s home in cen­tral San­ti­ago. “Trans­port is vi­tal and we’re dis­con­nected.”

Those who do reach San­ti­ago find a city rich with history but ham­pered by what visi­tors and res­i­dents alike call sub­stan­dard ac­com­mo­da­tions, few high-qual­ity restau­rants and a lack of fun things to do at night. Cuban of­fi­cials say San­ti­ago has roughly 1,500 of Cuba’s 60,000 ho­tel rooms, far fewer than it needs.

San­ti­ago’s pro­mot­ers lament that tourists are miss­ing out on the city’s rich Afro-Cuban cul­ture, its me­an­der­ing streets, colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture and its prized role as the home of Cuban mu­si­cal gen­res such as trova and son.

What’s more, it has a unique un­der­wa­ter park filled with seven ships sunk dur­ing the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, ac­ces­si­ble by small boat or a scuba dive.

“It’s a trea­sure that we have to show off,” said Vi­cente Gon­za­lez, head of San­ti­ago’s Cen­ter for Cul­tural and Nat­u­ral Un­der­wa­ter Her­itage.

Along with the new ocean­front male­con and the restora­tion of homes in the city’s his­toric cen­ter, the Cuban gov­ern­ment has built a new theater and an ar­ti­sanal brew­pub as part of a broader re­con­struc­tion and im­prove­ment ef­fort that be­gan af­ter Hur­ri­cane Sandy dev­as­tated the city in 2012.

Another po­ten­tial draw, par­tic­u­larly for Amer­i­can tourists, is the me­mo­rial to Theodore Roo­sevelt’s Rough Riders, who fought on the city’s San Juan Hill in one of the most fa­mous bat­tles of the Span­ishAmer­i­can War that freed Cuba from Span­ish rule.

But vir­tu­ally ev­ery tourist es­tab­lish­ment in the city closes at 10 p.m., leav­ing the streets dark and silent.

Last year, San­ti­ago had 297,918 visi­tor-days, an in­dus­try mea­sure of the num­ber of tourists who ar­rived in the city mul­ti­plied by the num­ber of days each stayed. That was a 6 per­cent rise over 2013, but the over­all num­ber re­mains tiny com­pared to flow of tourists in Ha­vana, which had nearly 3 mil­lion visi­tor days, or Va­radero with 7.8 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Jose Luis Perello, a pro­fes­sor of tourism at the Univer­sity of Ha­vana.

Some ad­vo­cates of U.S. travel to Cuba says they are op­ti­mistic about San­ti­ago’s fu­ture, par­tic­u­larly since Amer­i­can tourists re­main barred from pure tourism and must par­tic­i­pate mostly in cul­tural or ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties well-suited to his­toric sites like San­ti­ago.

“The city and the re­gion have much to of­fer. It’s just a ques­tion of time be­fore tourism in San­ti­ago starts grow­ing,” said Tom Pop­per, head of In­sight Cuba, one of the largest op­er­a­tors of U.S. tours to Cuba.

“U.S. tourists can go to any part of the Caribbean for the beaches, but what they want to see is the Cuba that they haven’t been able to see for gen­er­a­tions.”


(Above) Horse­men take their horses back to a farm af­ter a rodeo show in San­ti­ago, Cuba, July 26. (Right) A child is raised above the crowd at a con­cert by Cuban singer Can­dido Fabre dur­ing car­ni­val cel­e­bra­tions in San­ti­ago, July 27.

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