Cuba Tourism Boom is Drawing Professionals to Leave Their Jobs for Better Opportunities
Last year the United States began dismantling the last remaining barriers to Americans travelling to Cuba, contributing to an estimated 3.5 million visitors in 2016 as Americans flocked to what had been for so long a forbidden country – for Americans at least. The opportunity of Cuba tourism is huge in places like Havana and Trinidad as well as more out-of-the-way locals such as Baracoa and Viñales. This growth in tourism has prompted a wave of Cubans to leave their jobs as lawyers, doctors and teachers to work in the tourism industry.
This includes people like Cesar Balgas in Baracoa, who has tapped into the tourist demand, leasing rooms in his house for about $20 per night. These are called casas particulares, meaning literally “private houses”. These have blossomed throughout Cuba in the past two years.
Over the past decade, Balgas expanded from renting his own bedroom to tourists to sporting six large rooms, a shaded and terraced garden and a rooftop patio and restaurant. He is booked solid with customers almost every day and estimates that he puts in fifteen hour work days – but it is worth it he told me. Cesar, who studied economics at university, can make substantially more money in tourism (around $100/day) than he did working as a government economist (around $30/month). In fact, Cesar’s own friends greet him with half-joking shouts of “maceta” meaning rich man or millionaire. Half joking because they know he is on his way.
Without a doubt, Cuba has the highest educated workforce in Latin America. Every year Cuba’s universities graduate thousands of lawyers, teachers, doctors, computer engineers and economists like Cesar. The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs for all these well-educated Cubans. The only option for them are low-paying, low-skill jobs that have nothing to do with what they studied. A salary of $20-25 a month is not uncommon for professionals in Cuba.
With Cuba tourism playing an ever greater role in the economy many of these educated professionals are making their way into tourism. Tourism jobs, even the most tedious, pays far more than professional employment. I was taken aback at how many waiters I met in Cuba who sported unused university degrees and spoke multiple languages. Waiters make more than doctors or lawyers. It is an interesting situation to say the least.
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Carlos Enrique González works as a guide for Espiritu Travel. The small, New Hampshire-based company promotes the tourism-based entrepreneurial activity in Cuba by working exclusively with family-owned casa particulares, paladars and other privately owned businesses. Ten years ago, González left his job as a government lawyer to go into the tourism industry. “It was the only way I could make money!” He told me. The energetic, smiling González is a bundle of energy, using his earnings to care for his extended family, rehabilitate his Havana home and buy a farm near Trinidad. He hopes the farm will eventually attract tourists looking for a rural Cuban experience.
For people like Espiritu’s González and Balgas in Baracoa, every penny from Cuba tourism is a deposit on a better future. With more economic stability comes emotional well-being and the ability to then extend that stability to other sectors of the economy – something that couldn’t have happened had they remained in their profession. Standing on the roof of Balgas’ hostel in Baracoa I watched as a number of local skilled laborers scrambled back and forth through the building putting up air conditioners, fixing windows and adding more rooms.
For tourists, the type of travel advocated by companies such as Espiritu Travel has the appeal of full cultural immersion (like staying in someone’s private home) many people seek these days. At the same time, Espiritu aims to have a direct impact on individual Cubans and their families. A win for the visitor and a win for Cubans in the tourism industry.
¨These direct earnings can make a difference in not just the person working in the industry but the knock on effects are wide,” says Karin Eckhard of Espiritu Travel. “Cuba Tourism is creating linkages with other sectors of the economy, in other words other entrepenuers. One of our local guides is now able to build his own house, another one is turning part of his house into rural accommodations to create a business for his whole family. The entrepeneurs we work with, often call me to thank me for helping their families,¨ she says.
It isn’t just professionals moving into tourism. On a rainy beach southeast of Baracoa I met Tato. Six years ago, Tato saw that the increasing number of tourists showing up on the beach where he grew up needed someplace to eat and drink. The smiling, solidly-built owner of Playa Manglito’s Bar de Tato got his start fishing by himself and cooking it right on the beach. He quickly saved enough to build a small, blue house just off the beach. He designed a small but outstanding menu, planted a garden and his own fruit trees. He invited me in for a beer and a bowl of manioc and chicken soup. His little restaurant was packed with Dutch tourists. He is already considering an expansion.
There is a potential downside to all of this. Some note an increasing socio-economic divide between those operating in the tourism industry and those who are not a part of it.
The Latin Times notes that this divide is already showing up even in cities. The city of Santiago de Cuba in the west is struggling with tourism while Havana is seeing huge benefits.
“Already, Cuba is seeing the snowball effect of capitalism and development. Santiago gets less tourists because it has less infrastructure: fewer hotel rooms, poorer internet access and weaker transportation. As a result, there’s less private money to invest in restaurants, lodging, as the other entrepreneurial projects that are driving economies outward along the northern seaboard: Havana, the capital, and Varadero, a highly developed resort town.”
The disparity in development notwithstanding, Cuba tourism is driving a growth in entrepreneurship across the island. It is also stimulating other sectors of the Cuban economy. The next challenge is to figure out how to expand those benefits across a broader swath of the country. The other challenge is to Cuba’s professional class. With such low pay and so many people diverting to tourism, will Cuba quickly see a lack of lawyers, teachers and other professionals?
That is a question not easily answered but probably not. , Nélida Gancedo Gaspar of the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana doesn’t seem worried:
“Cuba is not looking at tourism as some sort of short-term solution that exploits people’s curiosity about the island. Nor does he see tourism as “a necessary evil” in the heart of a socialist society, explanations sometimes given by those confused about the impressive dynamism of the Cuban tourist sector. Tourism in Cuba is a strategic development associated with creating a new concept of sustainable tourism from the vantage point of its ecological, economic, and social dimensions.”
Says Espiritu’s Eckhard: “Sustainable tourism is not just about creating jobs, it’s about creating a tourism sector that benefits as many people in that community as possible. Not just those working directly with tourists but the linkages throughout the local community, spreading the benefits and contributing to the overall development of the wider community. Being an entrepreneur is not just about earning money, it is about taking control of ones destiny, building business skills and contributing to the development of the wider community.”
This article on Cuba Tourism initially appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Vrai Magazine