Tourism – “All aboard!” in Cuba

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .

John and I are in Cuba for 11 days, and I’m reporting as a journalist having made all the arrangements on my own…. If the Internet cooperates, I’ll be coming to you from Trinidad on schedule on Tuesday, April 11th.

Things in Cuba are changing … rapidly. In general, Cubans seem to be happy with Socialism, certainly with the free education through the university level. Upon graduating with whatever degrees, young people work two years at half the designated amount of income to repay the government. They’re particularly happy about recent changes that enable individuals to make money from the tourist industry.

Our first two nights were at Casa Raquel in Havana. We’d read good things about this “casa particular” – the Cuban version of a B&B – on Trip Advisor where word gets out but bookings cannot take place for this Third World country. Reportedly Cubans are not supposed to access the Internet, only to use email for communication, although this could be disputed, as some have access to wifi.

Cuba accepts no US credit cards so making reservations was a challenge; going with a prepaid tour does have its advantages. Raquel had said, “Just pay me when you get here.” That’s the accepted way in Cuba – until, I suspect, the practice gets abused too often by the influx of Americans who tend to have a disregard for anything they’ve not had to pay for. Raquel has even been known to loan taxi fare to Americans who arrive without having exchanged money at the airport. Working through a Canadian travel agency is a possibility for that all-important first night if you prefer a hotel. Elsewhere in the country, Airbnb worked perfectly, allowing us to book accommodations and prepay with credit cards.

Exchanging money can be another issue. Although the Cuban currency is pegged to the American dollar, there’s about a 12.5% hit on exchanging the dollar – 10% because it’s American currency and another 3% as the usual service fee. We shopped around in the Denver market and exchanged to Canadian dollars before leaving the US, finding the overall savings to be about 7%, depending on whether or not you can get in and out of the Cherry Creek Mall before being charged for the second or third hour.

Anticipating every expenditure is perhaps the most difficult thing and then planning for the unexpected … then managing the conversion(s). One needs to be prepared to pay cash for everything, and you know how common it is for us Americans to overspend on vacations – just charging it to our credit cards and worrying about it later.

Hotels are government owned (or co-owned with a foreign entity) with daily rates in Havana generally about $200 - $400/night. Casas particulares can vary in rate but typically run about $35/night with breakfast $5 per person extra. Big difference. Although the comfort level cannot be guaranteed, one can get an idea of the place by reviews online. For every casa particular with a record, there are probably 100 that have not yet been reviewed. Ratings for the proprietors are every bit as important as the colors of the bedspreads. Raquel was a jewel.

She arranged for a taxi service to collect us at the airport – someone looked for us holding a sign displaying our name – about an hour or more after our anticipated arrival. Going through immigration, finding a currency exchange, waiting in a long, seemingly unmoving line, and being redirected to two other exchanges before pocketing local CUCs, used up three hours after arrival.

Alejandro was delightful, however, as we connected in the salon for arrivals. He’d grown up in another province, attended the university in Havana and married a woman dentist from Havana, thus qualifying for the coveted permission to relocate to Havana where most of the wealth is. It is not easy to move outside the province where one is born, a regulation that keeps the entire population of Cuba from heading west and tipping that end of the island into the sea.

Alejandro was not our driver, merely the coordinator who located us and communicated the address to the driver who would pick us up. It all went smoothly for a $30 ride to our destination, paying the driver directly.

It’s difficult to get a sense of “wealth” anywhere. It’s a poor country where the average wage is the equivalent of $20/month. Cuba uses two sets of currency, and the local currency – moneda nacionale – goes a lot further than what’s used by the tourists, but still not very far.

Raquel allowed me to accompany her to do her daily shopping for provisions to serve breakfast to her guests and make meals for herself and her family. It is typical to visit six or eight small establishments or produce stores to find enough to fill two plastic bags, supplementing what one finds with onions and garlic from a passing vendor on a tri-cycle, selling nothing else. A few potatoes here, cabbage there, a bar of soap somewhere else. A man on a bicycle riding through the streets after dark bellows to the residents he has fresh bread.

Vendors buy in bulk but are limited by what they can transport. Each store might have somewhere between 20-50 choices on a daily basis. You take whatever you can get. There might be 15 food items (not 15 choices of a single food item, mind you), a couple choices in hardware, a few personal hygiene items, fans and air conditioners. Bottled water is a staple everywhere. Without exception, the produce would be considered discards at Safeway or King Soopers. But shoppers pick through for the best and move on to the next stop. Once on the breakfast table, one does not know how bad it looked in the produce store.

Opportunities to shop for clothing and other items probably exist, but we didn’t see any. The average person has no money to spend, and tourists can save by not spending on what’s not available. The nicer clothing comes from family members in Florida.

Raquel’s flat is two stories up – lots of climbing considering the ceilings of the old colonial building are 15 feet high. She was able to purchase her casa when the government began allowing locals to own property about four years ago. They decided the second floor of the building – her “house” – built in 1927 was worth $1,100 in the local currency – less than $300 in tourist cash. She makes a monthly payment to the government. Once paid off, she is eligible to sell it privately to someone else – perhaps for as much as $80,000, for example, in tourist currency.

I see a shortage of lodging for locals on the horizon as foreigners buy up and recondition what might appear to be slum areas on the exteriors. We met one Swiss family already in the process of doing so for their own personal use. At this time foreigners are not permitted to rent out facilities.

Raquel is one of many who have gotten into the tourist industry, which is most certainly Cuba’s salvation. In the past few years dozens of professions have been approved for residents to earn money in ways related to tourism. Renting out rooms or charging guests for home-cooked meals are two such professions. Operating taxis (including bicycle taxis) and restaurants are other examples.

A proprietor must be licensed, meeting just the barest minimum of requirements such as offering running water and bathroom facilities, must pay $50 for a government stamp, and must report appropriately, sharing his or her profits with the government in monthly and year-end taxes. From the best I could tell, it seems like it is about 45% that goes to the government and for overhead. Nevertheless, Raquel has the opportunity to net about $500 – $600 per month, even after paying a housekeeper $150/mo. to cook and clean for her, covering food and bedding, towels, and utilities. She says she pays about $16/mo for electricity and another $4 for water with natural gas being miniscule.

As a mechanical engineer, her 5-year degree, qualified her to make just $30/mo. – 50% more than average. A skilled doctor doesn’t make a whole lot more – just $40 – but twice the average, according to our host. There’s good reason for everyone to aspire to be part of the tourism industry. I’m told government workers – and there are many of them – enjoy special perks of desirable items at rock-bottom prices, i.e., a can of pop for the equivalent of about 5 cents. Many apply to be police officers because there is such high demand for them in Havana.

During the so-called “special period” that occurred when everyone had to tighten their belts (when Russia pulled their support for the Communist island in the late 1980s), times were tough. Many were starving and – as we’ve heard reported on the news – took chances crossing the ocean on rafts or in overcrowded boats. Raquel herself had just divorced and went from a comfortable life as a government worker’s family to raising two small children on her own. Her parents provided her with hefty supplies of rice and beans so the children would not suffer. Between a lack of soap and poor diet, the skin on her arms and legs developed sores.

The city is filled with old cars from the 1950s and some new automobiles as well. Generally speaking, there’s very little traffic in the streets. There are horse-drawn carts and many cyclists. Sidewalks are abysmal. A magnificent new hotel with fashionable upscale shops has been built across from the Capitol but has yet to open.

Next week, a report on the colonial city Trinidad on the south shore.

This is Part One of a four-part series.  Here are additional links:

Part Two - Tourism in Trinidad

Part Three - The fishing village of La Boca

Part Four - Wrapping up our stay on the island