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

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The empty cruise port in Havana.
The empty cruise port in Havana. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers

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."

Cuba revisited

"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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