U.S. Involvement in Cuban Tourism

February 13, 2020

The tourism industry acts as a major source of revenue for Cuba’s economy. American tourists are the second largest group of tourists that visit the island in the Carribean. Since the early 1990’s, the tourism sector has grown into a vital part of Cuba’s domestic economy. “Since 1995, tourism income has grown at 18.6% annually. Foreign investment has increased the number of hotel rooms on the island to over 35,000. The number of tourists has increased from several hundred thousand in 1991 to 1.85 million in 2000. Tourism directly employs 81,000 workers” (Trumbull 2001). Tourism has a lengthy history in U.S.-Cuban relations, and with the Trump administration, it has taken another unexpected turn. 

American tourism in Cuba has a long history that began with a correlated U.S. economic and political interest in the island. The United States initially became intertwined with Cuba when it  aided the island in finally ousting Spanish colonialism in 1898 during Cuba’s war of independence. However, the Spanish-American war was far from the end of foreign influence in Cuba. The United States remained tied in Cuba’s domestic affairs through the Platt Amendment that permitted U.S. intervention and gave the U.S. the right to build naval bases on the island. Economically, the United States was heavily invested in the sugar industry in Cuba and the Platt Amendment facilitated the expansion of U.S. owned sugar and electric companies on the island. Extended involvement and exposure caused the United States to see aspects of Cuba as beneficial tourist attractions for Americans. The tourism industry that catered to Americans consisted of pornographic theaters and casinos that spread western culture, while Americans used Cuba as a commercial vice. The U.S. control of Cuba’s economy began to spark a sense of Cuban economic nationalism that was based in protectionist ideology. 

After the Cuban revolution, anti-american sentiments soared, and Cuba engaged in protectionist policies that closed its borders to outside markets and influence in order to develop its own economy and protect its new socialist ideology. “In the end, Mafia hotels and casinos were seized and nationalized by the new government, as were American-owned and/or controlled businesses, warehouses and commercial interests on the island” (Spiller 2018). After Cuba’s turn to socialism, the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba in 1958. The embargo initially only covered the sale of arms, but it evolved, eventually including all exports to Cuba. The principal justification for the U.S. embargo was Cuba’s refusal to accept democracy. In addition to imposing economic sanctions, the U.S. also limited American travel to the island. In 1963, “Kennedy prohibits US citizens from traveling to or making financial transactions with Cuba. The embargo devastates the Cuban economy over the course of the next 50 years” (Epstein 2016). The prohibition of financial transactions between Americans and Cubans predominantly affected Cubans who’s extended family in the United States sent remittances to them. The application of the travel ban has fluctuated as it was not instituted between 1977 to 1981, but was then reapplied in 1982 by President Reagan. Eventually, Cuba began to open back up, recognizing the potential the island has as a global tourist attraction. “Cuba began in the 1990s to adopt tourism as one of the basic pillars in the redefinition of its economic strategy” (Castillo 2002). Following this, in 2014, Obama lifted travel restrictions to Cuba, with some being reimposed by President Donald Trump in 2019. 

Even though the United States and Cuba have had cold relations due to a history of imperialist influence, relations began to shift with the election of President Barack Obama. He was the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since 1928. “President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century” (Baker 2014). Thus, 2014 was a monumental year for U.S.-Cuba relations, mainly because Obama began to repeal restrictions on travel, economic investment, remittances and banking, with a goal to eventually repeal the embargo placed on Cuba. These actions drastically supported the tourism industry in Cuba. “Both public and private workers in the industry benefit directly from employment and income, thousands of suppliers benefit from sales to the industry, and the emerging private businesses include tourism-centric B&Bs, taxi transport, and restaurants” (Feinberg 2016). The support of this sector further supported Cuba's national economy, as it relies heavily on the tourism industry.

However, this normalization of political and economic relations between the United States and Cuba has not lasted long, as President Donald Trump quickly opposed his predecessors actions and promised to reverse them. Since being in office, Trump has imposed new sanctions, especially regarding travel. In 2019, The New York Times reported,  “Beginning on Wednesday, the United States will not permit group educational and cultural trips known as “people to people” trips to the island unless they were booked before June 5, the Treasury Department said in a statement. Nor will it allow cruises, private yachts or fishing vessels to stop in Cuba” (Mzezewa 2019). The restrictions imposed last year, prohibit the most common ways that Americans travel to the island and contribute to Cuba’s economy. Since the restrictions were employed, tourism in Cuba has been expected to drop at least 8.5% (Acosta 2019). According to the Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, there was a “20.33% reduction in tourist activity.” In previous years, Obama had stimulated income from the tourism industry which had “offset weaker exports and a steep decline in aid from key ally Venezuela '' (Acosta 2019). With Venezuela's current economic crisis and Trump’s recent policies, the island is in need of foreign investment and economic contributions more than ever. Trump’s recent austere policies are in response to Cuba’s continual socialist ideology. However, his policies are hurting the Cuban businessmen and workers, more so than the government, as those are the people who own small, private businesses in the tourism sector. 

Not only do his policies affect the recreational aspect of tourism, but it also impacts the practice of health tourism. Health or medical tourism has contributed to the tourist industry and to Cuba's economy. Health tourism is the practice of traveling to a certain destination in order to receive a medical treatment or operation. Health tourism is common in Latin America, as the cost of operations are generally much lower than in other countries, including the United States. “When it comes to financial aspects of getting treated in Cuba, it is a fact that treatment in Cuba is 60 to 80 percent less than the cost in the US” (CubaHeal Research 2018). Health tourism can also be the result of an inability of resources or services in one's community. Cuba has a reputation for providing efficient, quality health care to its people at low to zero cost. While hospital stays are generally free, medication in Cuba sometimes comes at a cost that is too high for many Cubans, but often not for foreigners (Neuman 2015). Medical tourism in Cuba has gained traction after Diego Maradona traveled to Cuba to receive treatment for drug addiction. Along with drug and alcohol addiction treatment, medical tourism is often centered on other procedures including eye surgeries, physical therapy, and plastic surgery. “Opponents say this private medical tourism creates a two-tier system but others argue that the combination of healthcare and holidays brings in much-needed money to the country's health system” (BBC World 2015).The focus on health tourists has increased the quality of the healthcare system in the country, leaving Cuba ranked as 39th best health care system in the world by the World Health Organization. With travel restrictions resurfacing with Trump's administration, health tourism is another sector that is affected by lower rates of Americans traveling to the island, furthering the economic difficulties Cuba is beginning to face. 

The concentration of Cuba’s economy on the tourism industry relies on foreign interest in the island. As Trump turns U.S.-Cuba relations cold again, he denies not only the Americans the ability to travel, receive lower cost healthcare, and enjoy a foreign attraction, but he also denies the ability to invest in Cuba’s main economic industry. The lack of cooperation between the countries rejects a potentially mutually beneficial relationship, at a cost to the people of the United States and the people of Cuba. 



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About Author(s)

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Mia Bristol
Mia Bristol is a fourth year undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursing a double major in Political Science and Spanish with a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During summer 2019, Mia completed research on the use and accessibility of contraception in the University setting in Manizales, Colombia through the Seminar and Field Trip by the Center for Latin American Studies. Mia intends to graduate Spring 2020 and pursue a career in foreign affairs. This is her first year as an intern for Panoramas.