Exploring Ethical Tourism in Cuba Through Venture Grant

Many students take advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad through a Keller Venture Grant. The grant allows students to choose a topic that they’re passionate about and explore it in depth, so they may elect to conduct the study in a place that they don’t have the means to travel to otherwise.

In recent years, the number of grant recipients traveling to Cuba has increased, despite travel restrictions imposed by President Donald Trump. Personally. I studied in Cuba for two months with Colorado College’s Latin America program, and returned to Cuba a year later to complete a Venture Grant on the Beatles’ influence in Havana.       

Tourism in Cuba is different than in most countries. For many, traveling there feels like being taken back in time; everywhere you turn, you see old classic cars dating back to the 1930s and crumbling buildings in enchanting pastels. American tourists, previously unable to visit, often lament wanting to visit before the country is “ruined” by capitalism. These visitors often leave Havana with a distorted view of socialist society — Cuba being trapped in time may seem magical for a week-long visit, but creates significant daily struggles for those actually living there.

After witnessing the palpable effects of more tourists firsthand and learning of many CC students traveling to Cuba, I felt compelled to write another Venture Grant to Havana: “Rosy Retrospection: Touring a Country on the ‘Cusp of Change.'” With the grant, I hoped to learn ways in which visitors could exercise more ethical tourism, recognizing the hardships of Cubans and avoiding leaving the island wearing rose-colored glasses.

While studying in Cuba, I certainly lived a charmed life — beautiful island weather, a loving host family, laundry done for me, and meals provided or bought cheaply — that made life seem simple. It’s easy for me to look back fondly of my time there. I fall into the trap of what psychologists call “rosy retrospection,” and because my experience as a whole in Cuba was positive, I talk of my time there more positively now than when I first left. This effect only grows with time and distance. The reality is, my idyllic life was at the expense of constant hardship for the Cubans around me.

My host mom Angelita did not serve us spaghetti until my last week because she insisted she needed to serve it with cheese; however, she had not received any cheese rations in ages, and she could not purchase it because all the restaurants had been buying it up to serve to tourists. She would not go out to buy food, or “comprar comida”; she went out to look for food, or “buscar comida.” While Angelita does well financially by serving tourists, the truth is that most Cubans, on average, earn $24 a month.

Because the economy is so reliant on tourism, taxi drivers are earning more money than doctors or teachers. This has created a paradox that illustrates tourism in Cuba as a double-edged sword. While access to the tourist economy has greatly improved the lives of many Cubans, it has also made things, like basic food items, even more inaccessible for others.

Photo Courtesty of Mitra Ghaffari

Ironically, despite these struggles, tourists still romanticize the Cuban people and their country. In Cuba, there is a strong belief of “resolver”: the sentiment that no matter how difficult life becomes, all will be resolved. Thus, hardships are framed in a deliberate way. Long lines waiting for food, internet cards, or money are “worth the wait”; having limited access to internet (which is also highly censored) allows people to be “disconnected” and focused on face-to-face interaction; as a result of the Revolution, most basic rights (such as healthcare, education, food and shelter) are free, but often extremely lacking in resources. Meanwhile, tourists don’t even realize the underlying stress Cubans endure dealing with these issues on a daily basis, and instead fixate on white sand beaches and shiny vintage cars.

During Block Break 7, I returned to Cuba with Evyn Papworth ’18, paraprofessional of the political science department, to interview Cubans and tourists alike on these subjects. We wanted to learn more about the relationships between tourists and Cubans and where both groups see the country heading. While there, we gained perspectives on the lack of internet, the business of the classic cars, the presence of tourists, and access to resources in general. Further, we spent time in Los Pocitos, a marginalized community in West Havana, where Papworth and Mitra Ghaffari ’18 completed a Davis Project for Peace. There, they partnered with a local organization and established a community center and classroom space to conduct workshops for the children.

This grant will culminate in presentations in two spaces: the CC Spanish House and in the Havana Historic Center. For the final Cafecito of the year, Papworth and I will present our interview findings at the Spanish House. In addition to the findings, we will present a photo gallery of pictures taken by the children of Los Pocitos. An identical gallery will be curated by Ghaffari and presented in a gallery in Havana. The photos relate to our project by providing a more authentic Cuban perspective of the island, rather than the romanticized one of tourists.

To see the gallery and learn more about ethical tourism in Cuba, come to the Spanish House Monday, April 29, at 5 p.m. Food from Havana Grill will be provided.

Sarah Laico

Sarah Laico

Sarah is a junior from Warwick, New York. After being Head Writer of her high school paper, she has enjoyed continuing her passion for journalism working at the Catalyst. An outdoors enthusiast, Sarah loves to rockclimb, hike, ski, and trail run, and she also is a backpacking, rafting, and climbing leader for the Outdoor Education Center. When she is not editing for the Active Life section at the Catalyst or monitoring at CC's Ritt Kellogg Climbing Gym, Sarah can be found playing drums and eating cereal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *