A visit to Cuba reveals economic pain of Trump’s travel ban

A visit to Cuba reveals economic pain of Trump's travel ban

HAVANA — At breakfast one morning on the rooftop of Malecon
663, a shared private home overlooking the Florida Straits that separate Cuba
from Key West, Gloria Hernandez, a waitress/bartender/concierge, suddenly
stopped mid-pour.

“Look, out there,” she said, pointing to the
horizon. “I think that’s a cruise ship. I haven’t seen one in so long. I
used to see two or three a day coming and going in and out of the harbor.”

What she and I both saw was indeed a cruise ship, too far
away to be identified by the specific line but a ship nonetheless. It was
bypassing Cuba and headed west, perhaps to Mexico.

No longer are U.S. cruise ships pulling into Havana or other
Cuban ports, and they haven’t since June 5, when the Trump administration’s
abrupt shutdown of Cuba as a U.S. cruise destination took effect.

The issue of cruise ships — once present, now absent —
came up time and again in dozens of conversations on my recent trip to Cuba.
The visit had been organized by the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit,
policy-oriented research organization focused on critical tourism issues and
responsible tourism practices, in partnership with Cuba Educational Travel, a
provider of customized legal travel to Cuba.

The trip explored the impact of the recent changes in U.S.
travel policy on everyday Cubans, including the importance of the Support for
the Cuban People (SCP) category of travel that replaced but closely resembles
the People to People (P2P) travel category that had been in effect since it was
reinstated by Obama in 2011.

Cubans across all walks of life had opinions on the topic,
but the absence of cruises dominated their conversations with me because of the
ripple effect it has had on other sectors, including restaurants, shops,
drivers of classic cars, tour guides, farmers, souvenir vendors, galleries and
attractions.

“I have no American tourists anymore,” said Jose
Carlos Melo Gonzalez, manager of the Bohemia Cafe and the Estancia Bohemia
hotel on the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. “I had them before. They were 70%
of my customers. They packed my restaurant. You couldn’t walk on this plaza, it
was so crowded. We used to offer two seatings at both lunch and dinner. Now I’m
lucky to have a few tables of Europeans and Canadians. I’ve had to let four of
my staff go.”

Melo also allowed that “It’s hot in Cuba now. It’s the
offseason, when tourist numbers usually drop off, but never to this extent.”

He said he’s hopeful he’ll see Americans again, traveling to
Cuba under the SCP programs, “but it’ll never be like Obama time again,
which was insane,” he said.

“Obama time,” the barometer by which many Cubans
measure U.S. tourism, was the heyday for many, when international visitor numbers
soared to a high of 4.8 million in 2018, up 4.5% compared with 2017. The 2018
figure included 638,000 cruise and stayover visitors from the U.S., largely due
to a big boost in cruise traffic (from 173,058 in 2017 to 341,000 in 2018).

Melo’s sentiments were echoed by many Cubans, from a trio of
guides who no longer have cruise passengers to book walking tours of the old
city to souvenir vendors with few customers. I spoke to one of them outside
Jose Fuster’s mosaic tile wonderland in Havana.

“Business is off by 60%,” Fuster said. “We
get tourists but not Americans. Americans buy.” He dangled in front of me
a small wooden replica of a tocororo, the national bird of Cuba. I bought.

Raulito Bazuk, owner and chef at the 2-year-old Grados
restaurant in the Vedado section of Havana, considers tourists a “surplus
and a blessing.”

“I have Cuban guests, but I am happy when foreigners
come and I can practice my French or English,” Bazuk said. “I don’t
get many, but I get enough to maintain and keep open for now.”

He serves many dishes that he learned to cook from his
mother, including an unusual starter, which I tried. Called “green-eyed
blond girl,” it is cornmeal based with plantains and quail eggs. It was
good, but once was enough.

His menu, Bazuk said, reflects his outlook on life: “I’m
an entrepreneur. The spirit of entrepreneurs is the way Cuban society operates.
It drives us.”

Later that day, I met Jorge Leon, a former government
economist who now runs a three-room casa particular (private home) called
Serendipia House near the Plaza of the Revolution in central Havana.

He gets most of his guests through Homestay and Airbnb and
charges about $30 per room, per night in the summer.

Each bedroom has its own bathroom. Breakfast is $5 extra.

“Tourist numbers are down this year,” Leon said. “We
had a lot more guests during Obama time, but this place supports my wife and me
and our daughter, niece and nephew. In Havana now, there are more options for
development of private businesses. This life has benefits. Running a [casa
particular] means I have conversations with guests. I make friends. We talk
about culture and interests.”

The legalization of small and mid-size private businesses
began when Raul Castro took over from his brother Fidel Castro in 2008.
Expanded in 2016, it is helping produce alternative incomes for Cubans, whose
average salary is the equivalent of $25 a month in a country where a gallon of
gasoline is approximately $5 and the wait time in gas lines, due to shortages,
can be an hour or more.

Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans) number more than
600,000 on an island with a population of 11 million, including 2.2 million in
Havana.

On Leon’s block alone, he said, 300 people are making a
living renting out rooms in their private homes, a practice first allowed by
the Cuban government in 1997. Airbnb’s roster in Havana totals more than 30,000
rooms.

Over lunch at Toto e Pepino Italian restaurant in Havana,
graphic designer Gerardo Rodriguez, who owns his own marketing business, said
he lost 10 clients last month, all due to the downturn in tourism.

“Seven of these clients run restaurants in Old Havana,”
he said. “There are no cruises, so no business, so no marketing needed
from me. There are more than 800 restaurants in Havana, and a lot are
suffering.”

The island has more than 1,750 restaurants.

Jose Luis Perello, a retired economics professor at the
University of Havana who now serves as a consultant on tourism development,
produced some statistics that served as hard evidence of the negative impact
that the recent changes in tourism have had thus far on life in Cuba.

U.S. air and sea arrival figures from January to June
totaled 372,857 visitors, compared with 266,441 over the same period in 2018,
indicating that 2019 U.S. visitation had been off to a strong start until the
Trump ban began.

Other source markets were strong, as well, and it was
looking like Cuba could meet its forecast of 5.1 million visitors this year,
according to Perello.

However, looking just at June 2019 figures for the U.S.
market told a different story.

“That month, U.S. air and sea arrivals were down 52.2%,
to 34,087 visitors, versus 64,946 in June 2018,” Perello said. “The
cruise ships stopped coming on June 5, 2019, and so did many of the land-based
visitors.”

Those who were already booked on P2P programs were
grandfathered in and allowed to visit as previously planned.

There are still a number of ways to legally visit Cuba, but
as Enrique Suarez, a former engineer and now chef and owner of Paladar
TocaMadera (Knock on Wood), told me, “The message is blurred. Americans
are confused about how and if to travel to Cuba. Cuba is the never-ending
story, but we Cubans are volatile and resilient. We are not mad, not sad and
not shutting down.”

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