By José Alejandro Rodríguez
HAVANA – There’s no stopping the trips back to the source, the call of the blood and the native soil. About 400,000 Cubans who live in the United States visited the island in 2011, rejoined their families, toured their former neighborhoods and surveyed the nation’s sentimental landscape.
For now, the isolationist intrigues from shifting political “everglades” in Florida have failed. Angry attempts by the hate-mongering groups against Cuba have collapsed. The easing of the rules on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans to their homeland – dictated by the U.S. government in 2009 – was not reversed.
On this side of the Morro and the Malecón, families welcome with love and no reservations their relatives who emigrated and settled abroad, despite those who, from Miami, would swim against the current and strew the Straits of Florida with conspiratorial jellyfish.
“The real truth,” as we say in Havana, is that Cuba is opening to the world, even though our neighbor to the North tries to control it and close the shutters. Scarabeo 9 promises a grand era in Cuban oil, with investors from various countries. And the United States, so close to, and in need of, the fuel that is inexorably disappearing from the planet, is blockading itself with its own embargo, in the face of economic logic.
I won’t pause to mention other openings that Cuba is making in the global market (keep an eye on very worthy technical services and certain advances in science that will soon become evident) but will concentrate only in the tourism progress and measure what U.S. travelers are missing right now, living next to a beautiful and safe country with a noble, hospitable, intelligent and vivacious population. I will not dwell on the great obstinacy that has been imposed on U.S. citizens.
Only in 2011, revenues from tourism increased 11.9 percent in comparison with the previous year. In a world of travel retrenchment, economic and financial crises, wars and instability, the number of vacationers who put their money on the tranquil Cuban charms continues to rise. With more than 2 million 700,000 visitors to a small island and its keys – a speck of land, really – Cuba experienced a 7.3 percent increase in the number of tourists. In 2012, it expects to welcome 3 million.
It is in this growing context that we mustn’t overlook the strategic importance of the travel potential by Cubans living in the United States. While almost 400,000 of them crossed the Straits in 2011, in a nearby future that number could increase significantly.
At a seminar on Cuban Economy and Entrepreneurial Management held in Havana in June 2011, two island academicians, Dr. Orlando Gutiérrez Castillo of the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana, and Ivis Gutiérrez Guerra, M.S., of the Center for Studies of International Migrations, drew to the attention of the Cuban authorities the likely importance of the émigré market segment in the strategies for the commercialization of tourism in Cuba.
The specialists stressed the need to work on the programs of Cuba’s “industry without smokestacks,” and mentioned the niches created by that special and familiar segment of tourism, motivated by family reunions and aid to the émigrés’ loved ones, their return to the roots and the many cultural and sentimental needs that serve to reaffirm their identity.
They foresee that the commercialization strategies aimed at that segment of the potential market (82 percent of the Cubans who settled abroad live in the United States) must be approached from very different motivation profiles. To keep tourism programs from growing stale for frequent visitors to Cuba, they propose that those programs be proactive and self-renewing.
While not ignoring the strong motivation of family sharing and the traditional idleness at sun-kissed beaches, the experts consider that tour operators “might explore the possibilities offered by religious feasts in cities and towns, by carnivals and the famous ‘parrandas’ [block parties] that take place in some localities.”
They also consider taking advantage of specific cultural events, such as book fairs, theater or film festivals, family excursions, banquets, parties and reservations in bed-and-breakfast homes.
These possibilities are even more promising now that the Cuban government has authorized residents to stay at hotels for tourists. It thus eradicated an unpopular ban, imposed in the 1990s during the so-called Special Period, when it was urgent to develop the programs for relaxation and recreation for travelers from abroad.
In the end, despite all the obstacles raised 90 miles north of the white beaches of Varadero, most Cubans in the United States eschew obsolete hatred and resentment and long to see Old Havana’s bewitching streets or the market places in Viñales.
And like all other emigrants (don’t the Guatemalan farmhands in the U.S. send remittances to their relatives at home?) they open their wallets to their families. Nobody knows – there are no official figures – how much money arrives in Cuba through remittances or in the pockets of our sons, brothers, uncles and cousins in the U.S. and other countries who visit us.
And now that economic changes are breaking down old prohibitions and encouraging non-state and private labor, the unfettered sale and purchase of houses and vehicles (other changes are coming), one can hope that many residents on the island can invest they money they get from relatives abroad to become self-sustaining.
The truth is that, while the reticent right-wingers in Miami argue that sending money to Cuba or visiting the island props up the Cuban system and government, life stubbornly shows that the principal beneficiary of those expenses is the Cuban family, regardless of its views. Those who would deny us salt and water – even the salty waters of the Straits of Florida – should remember what a Cuban songwriter once said: “Politics doesn’t fit in a sugar bowl.”
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