Tourism officials in Cuba have to fight the perception that a visit isn't worth the hassle because of ongoing blackouts and shortages.
British birdwatcher Harriet Babeo arrived at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs earlier this week and promptly racked up 80 species for her list including the world’s smallest hummingbird and the elusive red, white and blue Cuban trogon, rarities found only the island.
Far more challenging, she told Reuters, was hunting down a few liters of gasoline for her group’s rental car.
“We’ve gone … three days now, and (the service stations) have had nothing,” Babeo said over breakfast, binoculars and bird book near at hand, at a private home-stay on Cuba’s serene Bay of Pigs.
Tourists like Babeo who spoke with Reuters often raved about their experience in Cuba, praising the country’s hospitality, culture and weather. But increasingly, says Paolo Spadoni, an economist with Augusta University, visitors must confront the realities of Cuba’s economic crisis – the worst in decades – an ominous headwind as the country struggles to breathe new life into its all-important tourism sector.
“If you see how slow the recovery of the Cuban tourism sector is compared to other countries, it tells you there are deeper problems,” Spadoni said.
Cuba in 2022 received 1.6 million visitors, just 38% of the 4.3 million who traveled to the island in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Neighboring Dominican Republic, meanwhile, saw 7.2 million visitors in 2022, up 11.1% over 2019.
Policies implemented by U.S. President Donald Trump have scared off many tourists, Spadoni said. Trump ended cruise ship dockings and flights from the United States and put travelers of other nationalities who visited the island at risk of complicating entry to the United States.
But Cuba’s centrally planned economy, he said, has also failed to ensure adequate infrastructure and supply chains to serve those who still venture forth, souring some visitors and making it “very unlikely” Cuba will hit its goal of 3.5 million visitors in 2023.
“It’s a combination of things that create more and more problems just traveling to Cuba and in the end, many just decide to go somewhere else,” Spadoni said.
The Cuban government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cuba reported 246,000 visitors in January, a slower start to the year than likely necessary to hit its targets, but far better than the first month of 2022, when only 86,400 tourists arrived.
Part of the Experience
Large, state-owned hotels in Havana and on sandy keys offshore account for much of Cuba’s tourism revenue, official statistics show.
But at Playa Larga, a palm-fringed white sand beach deep inside the Bay of Pigs, small private homeowners still fight for their share of tourists, offering home-cooked meals, cozy rooms and Cuban hospitality.
Amauri Lugo, who runs a small home-stay near the beach, said even breakfast basics – milk, bread, eggs, cheese, ham – were hard to come by this year. And while electrical service has improved since December, he said, blackouts were so common last year that tourists often ate dinner by candlelight.
“It made it difficult to attend (to) visitors, but a lot of them understood and cooperated, even enjoyed those moments,” he said.
Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel (CET), said such flexibility is a hallmark of travel to Cuba.
“I always tell travelers there’s definitely a challenging situation on the ground, shortages, inflation, and you’ll experience those things, and you should, because that’s part of going to a country and learning about the reality,” he said.
And for those not interested in roughing it, there are other options, he told Reuters.
“There’s certainly nice hotels with strong internet, bathrooms with toilet paper, and nice restaurants,” Laverty said. “You can see the challenges but you don’t necessarily have to live them first hand as travelers.”
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood in Playa Larga; Additional reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: A stop on a TravelLocal arranged tour of Cuba. The country's tourism rebound has been sluggish compared with its neighbors. TravelLocal