Last updated: 01:19 PM ET, Thu October 27 2016

How Is US Tourism Changing Cuba?

Tour Operator Abercrombie & Kent David Cogswell October 27, 2016

How Is US Tourism Changing Cuba?

Photo by David Cogswell

"Change is in the air,” said Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA. And nowhere is that change more electric than for an American in Cuba right now.

Otterson just returned from an A&K President’s Trip to Cuba, and he is bubbling over with his discoveries.

It was not Otterson’s first trip to Cuba. He went to Cuba in 2005 as part of a group of Americans promoting the freedom for Americans to travel to Cuba. He worked with industry organizations such as ASTA, NTA and USTOA and lobbyists over a period of more than 20 years to try to open travel to Cuba.  

On the 2005 trip, Otterson met Fidel Castro. He also remembers being taken to a microbrewery in Old Havana, which he said was the one building in the area that was renovated.

“That was a little jewel of a building amidst all this unfinished stuff,” said Otterson. “The architecture, especially in Old Havana, is really beautiful. It’s colonial, it’s 200 years old and it was a mess, an absolute mess when I was there in 2005. There was that one building that I can recall that was fixed up.”

But now, he said, he realizes that what he saw then was the beginning of a renaissance. Now maybe half of Old Havana, the historic district and UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been renovated, upgraded and cleaned up.

“It’s really beautiful,” said Otterson, “from the kid who is selling ice cream and has a little stand, to the plazas that have been redone, to the old hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s all tourism stuff. They’re not going to open a textile mill over there probably, but it really is amazing.”

The Two Cubas

Beyond the Old City, certainly beyond Greater Havana, the change is not so evident.

“Then there is the rest of country,” said Otterson, “including the downtown area, by the hospital and the National Hotel, and the countryside. Everywhere I went is identical to how it was 11 years ago. There is no change. The architecture is crumbling. The Soviet architecture is still there. Once you get out of old Havana, it hasn’t changed, that’s my impression.”

In spite of how dramatically things are changing in Cuba, the old Cuba is far from gone. However, it is changing fast, so the urgency is still there.

READ MORE: How Easy Is It to Travel to Cuba?

“I still think it is important to go sooner than later for someone who is interested in history,” he said, “because it is going to change. But I don’t think they are going to put a McDonald’s on every corner.”

There will be resistance in Cuba to over-commercialization for various reasons. From the tourism standpoint, the Cubans realize that their uniqueness is their main tourism resource. It would be self defeating to take away Cuba’s uniqueness and make it look more like more standardized and commercialized tourism destinations around the world.

But the resistance will also come from the culture itself.

“I think they believe they have done such a great job in creating this society that is apart from America and other parts of the world that -- why would they want to mess it up?”

The Cuban Renaissance

Although the Cubans are proud of their brand of socialism, they certainly welcome the economic improvements brought by their government’s liberalization of laws restricting free market enterprise in Cuba. The country is in sore need of the infusion of capital that tourism is now bringing to the country, and that holds the promise of changing the fortunes of individual Cubans.   

“It is only a part of Old Havana that has been renovated,” said Otterson. “It is certainly not the whole city. In the Miramar district, which is sort of a Beverly Hills of Havana, you have situations such as where somebody’s parents had divorced and they build a plywood wall down the middle. And then you have two families. And then someone has kids and grandkids and they make another division. It’s like 20 people living in a space for four. And that’s all over the whole country because of the housing shortage.”

And yet, somehow, “Everybody has such a positive attitude. And all the people to people things we did, all the people you met.”

The average age of the population is 60. It reflects the loss of many of the younger Cubans who managed to escape the island for better prospects elsewhere in the world.

“But those who are left are pretty proud of what they’ve got there, which is really nice to see. It was so engaging.”

A Two-Way Street

But the change that struck Otterson so powerfully was not all in Cuba itself. It was also in the Americans he was traveling with. Nowhere is the evolution of luxury travel more clear than in Cuba, where all the old rules are thrown out the window.

“It’s no longer about thread count,” said Otterson. “It’s about flying in my private jet to Papua New Guinea and going there, ‘Damn it, I don’t care if it’s a Four Seasons or not, I want my people to meet those locals. I want them to have that experience even if they have to stay in a... [less than ideal hotel].‘”

In Cuba, it is not possible to provide A&K guests with the kinds of luxuries they are used to. Cuba is one of those places where the cultural experience so enriching, that creature comforts recede in importance to visitors. They are not there to lounge in comfort. They are there to satisfy their curiosity.

“There are some things that you can’t get anywhere else, and so people will put up with things,” said Otterson.

READ MORE: Want to Travel to Cuba? There Are Some Extra Rules You Need to Know.

“On an A&K trip they expect the finest in the world because that’s what they are used to,” he said. “But they are there, and they are accepting what is being done for them, because they know that A&K is trying as hard as it can to keep our brand standards alive. But you are in a place where you are so overwhelmed by the culture and the politics and the history and the daily life that you’re not too concerned about having beef that isn’t, you know, well done or whatever.”

A&K’s guide is a Cuban, but has been associated with A&K for 20 years. He has only been out of the country once, as an exchange student to Japan. He believes in his country’s ideology, said Otterson, but he does not push it on people.

Because the guide is so respectful of the visitors’ beliefs, Otterson said, “the people were that way too, respecting him. And I never heard so many questions. It’s very heavy commentary, but you want it to be. The people are like sponges. They really went there not for any other reason than to learn about that society.”

When Otterson was in Cuba 11 years ago, the private inns and restaurants called paladars were not yet in existence. Now a new economic tier has opened and is growing as Cubans apply their well-known resourcefulness and creativity to running their own tourist businesses.

Those travel business interests that lobbied for a generation to open tourism to Cuba must have had something like this in mind. While their governments remained intransigent and mired in old feuds, the people of the two countries began to reach out to each other and get to know each other. And in the long run, it is bringing about the kinds of positive changes that could never have been brought to Cuba under previous policies.

And the changes it is bringing to America are just as exciting.