Tourism in Cuba blessings and challenges

More and more tourists visit the socialist Caribbean island. Many Cubans benefit from this. After the resumption of diplomatic Havana. Victor Leonardo looks out of the window of the tourist bus that winds its way through the palm-lined streets of the Cuban tourist town of Varadero. “Cuba has changed rapidly over the past decade,” he says.

The 50-year-old is from the eastern province of Granma. He has spent decades working as a Spanish teacher – but it has become increasingly difficult to get on with a monthly salary of 25 US dollars (about 23 Doller).

“We get food rations, a free health system and education from the state. But every month was like a small fight for survival, “he says. So, Leonardo decided to move to the beach paradise Varadero, where a hotel complex is located to the next – to become a tourist guide. Now he earns a multiple of his former salary.

Two kilometers away, in the lively capital Havana, teeming with tourists. They drink mojitos and daiquiris in the Hemingway bars “Floridita” and “La Bodeguita”, make excursions in candy-colored old-timers or stroll through the old town lanes passing through colossal Spanish colonial buildings. Anyone who had hoped to experience Cuba before the mass attack is often disappointed. “There are a lot more tourists than I expected,” says the German tourist Nicole Tamer.

Cuba recorded a visitor record of four million tourists last year – 13 percent more than in 2015. Per the Tourism Ministry, the number of German holidaymakers rose by 69.2 percent in the first half of 2016 compared to the previous year.

Tourism has become a socialist Caribbean island, and Cuba is the second most important foreign exchange company. “Tourism is a key industry,” says economics professor Ricardo Torres from the University of Havana. “The country is on the brink, and above all locals benefit from it.”

The rush, however, becomes a stress test. Hotel rooms are expensive – up to 250 euros per night – and often booked months ahead. But the country, with around eleven million inhabitants, is preparing to build more than 100,000 new hotel rooms by 2030, and the international airport in Havana is to be modernized.

Raul Castro took over the office of the President in 2008 from his brother Fidel, who died last November. He has since loosened many restrictions. Although tourism is still largely in the hands of the state, opening also benefits the private sector. Since the socialist government has allowed the operation of privately run restaurants and private accommodation the “Counterproposals” – the self-employed – are among the better earners.

The boom could also exacerbate the social tensions in the officially classless society. The trenches between those who earn hard currency in tourism and those who must content themselves with state wages or administration with the average wage of 20 US dollars are getting deeper and deeper. To get on the laps, engineers drive a taxi, teachers work as a travel guide.

Not only do Europeans contribute to the onslaught. After a long ice age, the US under the leadership of Barack Obama in July 2015 again took up diplomatic relations with the former archenemy. Thanks to the political thaw, almost 285,000 US tourists came to Cuba last year, 74% more than in 2015.

This was much easier for US citizens. However, travel is still limited due to the trade barges. For example, visitors from the United States must have religious, cultural or academic reasons. “No one had the illusion that there would be dramatic changes overnight,” says Torres. “It is still a long way for our relations and the transformation of our country.”

The new US President Donald Trump had threatened to end the relaxation policy if Cuba did not make any further political concessions. What he means exactly is unclear. The future Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced to review Obama’s Cuba policy. “Nobody knows what Trump is going to do, but I firmly believe that there will not be a break in diplomatic relations,” says Torres.

While the sun is slowly sinking, the bus drives past images of the revolutionary heroes Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and to peasants on oxen carts slowly moving across the fields. “There were positive changes under Raúl, more freedom of travel and freedom of opinion and access to the Internet,” says Leonardo. “But we want a better life with more money, drugs and new cars.” The country will certainly not be Americanized. “For this, we Cubans are far too proud and patriotic.”

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