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Cuba, a destination where a guidebook can be essential, has received plenty of attention from publishers over the past 20 years. But a study from Rebecca Ogden, a researcher in Latin American studies at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, found Cuba that guidebooks aren’t giving tourists the full picture.
Before many travelers had smartphones, guidebooks were the main points of reference to help tourists discover where to go for dinner, which museum to visit, and which hotel was most comfortable. They’re not that helpful in many places anymore, but they still serve a purpose in less-developed markets.
However, in Cuba’s case, some publishers’ perspectives of the country are misleading and perpetuate stereotypes that harm tourists and locals, Ogden said in her article “Lonely planet: affect and authenticity in guidebooks of Cuba” published in the journal Social Identities.
Ogden, who has visited Cuba six times, most recently in July, analyzed 12 Rough Guide to Cuba and Lonely Planet Cuba editions. All books were published between 1997 and 2016, taking readers from the end of Cuba’s Special Period (a severe economic crisis) to the normalization with the United States in late 2014.
These books are among the bestsellers for Cuba guidebooks in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all major Cuban tourism markets.
In each new edition, much of the guidebooks’ text was republished with only small edits to addresses, prices, and opening times. Ogden didn’t speak to Rough Guides or Lonely Planet for the study but interviewed tourists, policymakers and service providers in Cuba during multiple research trips in the past five years.
Ogden’s research found the authority Cuba guidebooks have in shaping travelers’ perceptions of the country is underestimated.
“The first thing that’s really striking is that the guidebooks give a lot of information on local culture that reinforces the Latin lover stereotype, such as women should be prepared for the startling amount of attention from men,” Ogden said. That’s presented as quite factual information but it may also contribute to stereotypes in informing how tourists go into their encounters with Cubans. This could normalize sex tourism.”
What’s Missing From Cuba Guidebooks
Ogden’s research inspiration came from two ideas. One is the widely held belief that Cuba’s authenticity will disappear as tourism increases and the country opens to the outside world. The other is that tourists use Cuba guidebooks to escape the narratives peddled by state tour guides tasked to share communist propaganda.
The political-societal dimension between tourists and locals is slightly missing from the big picture, Ogden said. “Tourism has had this very dramatic effect in Cuba,” she said. “I think sometimes guidebooks don’t give this due consideration. When they’re encouraging tourists to join in activities that previously weren’t the domains of tourists, maybe more information could be given to why this wasn’t always the case. It has a backstory.”
To that point, the 2010 Rough Guide Cuba edition states, “a street party can be one of the most serendipitous and enchanting aspects of your trip…These state-organized and funded events, often arranged through politically oriented community groups called CDRs, create an ideal opportunity to rub shoulders with locals.”
Ogden also writes that many guidebooks portray Cubans as friendly and inviting, but locals have major incentives to present themselves this way. Many Cubans rely on tourism to earn extra money to offset the government’s scant allowances and rations.
“In light of this dilemma, the guidebooks’ representation of Cubans as inherently hospitable and generous, as well as normalized notions of interiority and intimacy, brings both economic opportunity and the risk that the real effort and labor involved will be rendered invisible by those same discourses,” the article states.
The guidebooks also encourage private homestays with locals versus hotels and resorts as a way to experience the real Cuba, which is also problematic, Ogden said.
“There’s lots of reason why the average Cuban who works in tourism won’t field a list of political questions because not everyone is a trained tour guide and trained to deal with a lot of criticism from tourists,” she said.
“Also, there’s this idea in Cuba called ‘doble moral’ which means that getting a candid story is never as straightforward as it seems,” said Ogden. “It depends to a great degree on who you’re speaking to. Seeing just the average Cuban as an ambassador for the country is not the most candid version of events.”
Cuba Guidebook Sales Are Up
Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebooks saw a dramatic increase in U.S. sales after then-U.S. President Barack Obama began the normalization process in December 2014. From 2015 to 2017, Cuba was among the company’s top five best-selling titles.
“That said, we are in midst of a sharp decline which began in the fourth quarter of 2017,” said Alicia Johnson, Lonely Planet’s destination editor. “There are a few factors that may have contributed to this. The current administration’s announcement to ‘roll back’ detente in June 2017, press around the acoustic assaults against the U.S. Embassy in Havana in September, and in November, the U.S. State Department’s release of the “Cuba Restricted List” which includes hotels, stores, marinas, and businesses.”
Johnson said Lonely Planet’s Cuba content tends to focus on areas of growth and progression. “In particular,” she said, “on the rising artistic scene in Havana lately as well as the new jazz wave that borrows from classic Cuban music. This is clear in the passage from the ‘Welcome to Cuba’ section on page six in our guide and on our Cuba destination page on lonelyplanet.com.”
“In our guidebooks, we always publish the most up-to-date information to the best of our ability within the bounds of our production schedule,” Johnson added. “Lonely Planet has always been known to get off the beaten track and encourage meaningful and socially responsible travel, which includes conscientious interaction with locals. Our writers spend extensive time traveling within and researching their regions.”
Lonely Planet published its latest Cuba guide in October. The next edition is likely due in 2020, though publishing schedules are subject to change, Johnson said.
Johnson of Lonely Planet didn’t respond directly to Ogden’s views about how Lonely Planet’s Cuba guidebooks sometimes miss the mark on Cuban culture. And Rough Guides didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Cuba’s Changes Are a Ripple Rather Than a Wave
For a long time, tour operators have been saying travelers should visit Cuba before it changes. But Ogden and many others haven’t yet seen overwhelming change. “My interpretation is that it’s not changing much,” she said. “I was in Cuba most recently last year and in all the restaurants everyone has guidebooks on the table.”
Wi-Fi and access to sites like TripAdvisor aren’t widely available in Cuba, although internet access is slowly improving. “Guidebooks are taken for granted but they do contribute to an imagery,” said Ogden. “When we’re on holiday, we want to feel differently. Cuba is particularly associated with that experiential potential.”
But increasing tourist arrivals will undoubtedly usher in more elements of globalization like new hotels, traveler-friendly restaurants, and modern technology.
“Since the normalization, things have gone back in some ways, it’s almost like a re-freezing,” said Ogden. “What’s emphasized is that Cuba is on the cusp of irreversible change. But we can’t freeze Cuba in time because it makes it a more quaint place to holiday.”