The story of international tourism to Cuba is a complex one. From the pre-Revolution Tropicana Club and casino days to tourism's eradication under Castro, and now back again with predominantly Havana and all-inclusive resort promotions, the island's relationship to international tourism has constantly evolved. Cuba received more than three million international tourists in 2014, more than any other year in its history. This trend shows no sign of slowing down as arrivals for January 2015 outpaced January 2014 by 16%. Most of these tourists come from Canada and Europe, but as you might have heard, Cuba has another huge market entering the mix.
The smoothing of relations between the United States and Cuba nations may allow for a massive influx of American tourists in the near future, but for now this is uncertain. With the potential influx of tourists from the United States, will Cuba develop a sustainable tourism model a la Costa Rica, or will they choose to emulate the all-inclusive route so popular throughout the rest of the Caribbean?
Cuba has already developed a massive all-inclusive resort enclave, Varadero, on the northern coast a couple hours east of Havana. This 20-mile strand of beach is home to many joint ventures between the Cuban government and foreign companies, and only a small percentage of profits ever benefit the Cuban people. Massive all-inclusive resorts, although becoming more sustainability-focused, have a long history of being unsustainable. Profits depart destinations, environmental degradation occurs, and local traditions are shuttered or commoditized, leading to varying degrees of tourism imperialism.
Cuba has developed a few other all-inclusive resorts outside of Varadero, but an overwhelming majority of the island still lends itself to sustainable tourism development. By choosing to move forward with the sustainable tourism model instead of further developing mass all-inclusive resort tourism, four key benefits to Cuba arise:
1. Protection of natural areas:
Cuba has 263 protected natural areas that combine to make up over 20% its territory. Promoting ecotourism to these parts, while maintaining safe environmental limits, can funnel more money into the conservation and enhancement of these sites or encourage the designation of even more protected areas. Many travelers are seeking an experience beyond the typical sun, sea, and sand of mass tourism. A visit to Cuba's protected areas would create this opportunity while helping to develop the ever-elusive sense-of-place that destinations desire to create.
Costa Rica has used this sustainability-focused approach to become the ecotourism epicenter of Central America, if not the world. Sustainable ecotourism has become a dominant part of their destination image, and they have well-preserved resources that will sustain their tourism economy long into the future. Why couldn't Cuba become the king of Caribbean ecotourism? Cuba and Costa Rica have similar natural attractions including breathtaking mountains, extraordinary biodiversity, and pristine reefs and wetlands. No other Caribbean island has an array of natural assets to match Cuba.
Developing a sustainable tourism model brings an incentive to keep these areas protected long into the future. Solimar International has had success implementing sustainable solutions in a similar situation in the Dominican Republic, encouraging the protection of biodiversity through tourism with small and medium-sized businesses in the face of mass tourism resort development.
2. Preservation of cultural heritage:
In addition to amazing natural areas, Cuba has unique cultural tourism assets as well. UNESCO has designated an astounding seven sites on the island as cultural World Heritage Sites. Perhaps most importantly, these are spread throughout the island and only one is in Havana. Havana will never lack for tourists and distributing visitors throughout the rest of the country will be key to developing in a sustainable way. Linking these UNESCO sites and other cultural attractions together will encourage visitors to stay longer while creating a more authentic experience than all-inclusive resort travel. These outcomes fit the sustainable tourism model as profits would increase due to longer stays while spreading beyond the resorts and Havana.
The socialist history of Cuba is a tourism asset in and of itself. Even as Cuba eschews some of this philosophy, visitors will remain fascinated by the stories of Fidel, Ché, and the Revolution. Marketing these already-present Revolution-themed attractions instead of further promoting mass resort tourism builds upon Cuba's unique cultural assets without further degradation of the natural or cultural environment, a possible outcome of building more resorts. This way, Cuba can show their cultural heritage while further developing the authentic sense-of-place that encourages repeat visits and promotes a positive destination image.
Cultural tourism could become a more powerful force throughout the island and is by no means limited to socialist history or UNESCO-designated sites. Baseball, music, dance, art, culinary traditions, agriculture, and many other aspects contribute to the island's distinct cultural identity. By moving visitors and profits beyond the resorts and Havana, Cubans have more incentive to simply act naturally and be themselves instead of putting on tacky, commoditized representations of themselves at the all-inclusives. Solimar International has previously demonstrated how tourism can be a catalyst for protecting cultural heritage while increasing local revenue in Fez and Marrakech, Morocco.
3. Support for the Entrepreneurial Movement sweeping the Island
The combination of Cuba's natural and cultural assets can be integrated into an immensely marketable sustainable tourism arsenal. In theory, this sounds great, but what is the vehicle for achieving this goal? One option would be to facilitate the formation of private enterprise and entrepreneurial development, which has led to innovation, efficiency, and coordination in the tourism sector in other destinations. In recent years, the Cuban government has slowly integrated private enterprise into the economy. This has been undertaken largely to reduce dependence upon the government, which can no longer supply everyone with jobs or a livable wage, and to bring black market activities into the formal economy.
As private enterprise becomes more viable, competition will lead to innovation and increased efficiency in the tourism industry. The Cuban people, who are quite resilient and creative, have actually had to develop a sort of entrepreneurial spirit over the years to overcome economic hardships. In Cuba this concept is known as "resolver," which literally means "to resolve" and can be understood as something along the lines of "we'll figure it out," or "we'll do what we have to do." Deep neighborhood and family networks have evolved out of this process. These networks have come together to solve problems time and time again. Isn't that what entrepreneurs do?
Cuban citizens view tourism as an engine for enterprise creation, mainly in the forms of casas particulares (rooms available for tourists to rent in private homes), paladares (small, privately-owned restaurants) and transportation services. Patronizing these businesses undoubtedly leaves the impression of an authentic experience in the minds of travelers while simultaneously contributing to the well-being of local residents via increased income. However, categories of legal self-employment are still restricted in Cuba. For example, Cuban citizens cannot be self-employed as tour guides, although the government has shown a recent affinity for being more responsive than in the past. Further developing private enterprise in tourism disseminates the benefits of tourism beyond the top level, reduces leakage, and creates competition. Competition is vital to innovation and a constantly evolving tourism product.
Solimar International has experience in facilitating new sources of income for people via small, entrepreneurial tourism ventures, specifically in Mali. As Cubans transition from government-provided jobs, they will continue to see the tourism industry as a viable alternative. Solimar International's expertise in aiding small tourism businesses could prove to be valuable.
4. Improved well-being of Cuban citizens
As sustainable tourism catches on, Cubans will have access to more jobs and careers, higher earning potential, cross-cultural interaction, and new skills and training. A successful tourism industry with a healthy private sector component reduces dependence upon the government while empowering Cuban citizens to forge their own path. If Cuba can develop tourism similarly to the Costa Rican model, the results will be well-maintained natural areas and cultural sites which will provide jobs and careers well into the future. All of these developments contribute to improved financial security and overall well-being for Cuban citizens.
I see the potential for these four benefits to "spiral up" to create a sustainable tourism model in Cuba. If private enterprise flourishes, resident well-being increases, thus providing further incentive to protect natural and cultural heritage. Cuba has fantastic natural and cultural attractions, and once Cuban citizens gain more sovereignty in the business development process, the potential for innovative and sustainable tourism products is infinite. Of course the government will still be a key figure in this development, but it can help by enforcing environmental regulations and supporting programs to preserve cultural identity. Ideally, the public and private sectors work together to ensure that Cuba's tourism growth happens in a sustainable way.
During my studies at East Carolina University's M.S. Sustainable Tourism program, I worked with Dr. Carol Kline on my M.S. thesis and a subsequent publication in Tourism Management. My research examines the relationship between private enterprise and tourism development in Cuba. I traveled to Cuba as part of a research team to interview residents about these topics. Out of this process came a realization that this is a critical time in history for Cuba's tourism industry. The possible influx of U.S. tourists only adds to the importance and immediacy of the need for Cuba to choose a sustainable path of tourism development. These decisions will determine the long-term success of tourism on the island and who benefits. I joined Solimar International, one of the leading sustainable tourism development firms with the hope that combining my knowledge of Cuba with their experience can help Cuba follow the right path to development.
This month, The Smithsonian Institution and The George Washington University (GWU) will host 'Culture Matters',a companion event to the upcoming DC-based Folklife Festival Solimar International's CEO Chris Seek has the honor of presenting as an expert panelist in the segment entitled Storytelling Places: Cultural Interpreters and Compelling Narratives. Chris will represent Solimar & share his experiences working to integrate communities into a destination's tourism value chain, and demonstrate how culture has a strong and positive impact on tourism for destinations and visitors alike
Collaboration between cultural heritage and international tourism has the potential to create impactful social and economic growth opportunities for a destination's local communities: capacity building, skills training, field guide training, product development and job creation. On the other side of it, by encountering a destination's compelling narratives, travelers come away with a deeper connection to the unique treasures that exist there, and most importantly a memorable, fulfilling travel experience.
Our clients are promoting cultural experiences to travelers from around the globe. We love seeing and hearing about visitors dancing with the Himba in Namibia, spending an afternoon with Bhutanese monks in the heights of the Himalayas, learning to fish Moken-style in the southern islands of Myanmar's Myeik Archipelago. These types of community-based tourism experiences are fun and foster cultural exchange while giving local economies a boost.
'Culture Matters' will harness the knowledge of its participants to discuss means for developing strong and lasting cultural tourism opportunities. Solimar is excited to participate in this symposium and panel discussion.
Thursday, June 25 2015
DC-based readers, sign up for the event here!
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A destination’s culture is manifested in its art, local traditions, colorful landscapes, and the diversity of the human intellect. Its most unique and alluring elements are derived from culture- and perhaps this is why the demand for cultural tourism in increasing.
Now, more than ever, it is vital for tourism industry leaders to preserve the cultures of destinations. Thanks to our numerous partners, Solimar’s team has had the pleasure of working with various people in dozens of destinations around the globe, and we want to share a few highlights from our favorite destinations for promoting cultural tourism:
Chris Seek, President/CEO: Integrating Local Communities into the Tourism Experience
“Our traditions and culture define who we are, our heritage reminds us where we come from. We must find a way to preserve and support traditional villages like Nobgang, that have tremendous cultural value to Bhutan.”
-Dorji Wangmo (Queen Mother) stated to Chris Seek, as they were discussing the importance of how to preserve the traditional architecture and way of life of the village she was born in, Nobgang.
Bhutan’s tourism industry continues to steadily increase, at a 10.25% growth rate. With this type of rapid development and a culture with deep traditional roots, responsible tourism is required. The Bhutan Ministry of Culture, the World Bank, and Solimar have teamed up to help integrate local communities and Bhutan’s rich culture into the tourism experience. Solimar understands that demand-driven products and experiences can greatly benefit heritage villages in Bhutan. When thoughtfully developed, cultural heritage products, such as the 13 traditional crafts of Bhutan, are a vital strategy for increasing revenue to rural villages that can directly support cultural heritage preservation.
Natalie Sellier, Director of Finance and Operations: Mapping Artisan & Cultural Heritage Routes
“Walking into the Jemaa el Fna (the night market) in Marrakech is something I’ll never forget. It’s one of the most chaotically beautiful places I’ve ever been. The whole area has such an incredible energy of sounds, smells and activity. Can’t think of anywhere else you’ll find monkeys wearing hats, snakes being charmed, African drummers, talented artisans, incredible food stalls… it’s such a magical place!” Natalie Sellier
Morocco is a country with rich cultural heritage and artisan traditions. Despite the success of Moroccan crafts in the international market, there is a lack of direct selling. With the help of Aid to Artisans, and Ministry of Crafts (Government of Morocco), Solimar linked the handicraft and tourism markets through the creation of artisan and cultural heritage routes in the cities of Fez and Marrakech. These routes—aided with over 500 interpretive signs--make stops at artisan workshops in each city, increasing awareness of Moroccan culture and craft traditions. The routes have also helped increase artisans' revenue by allowing them to sell their products directly to tourists instead of through a retailer or wholesaler. As a result of our work, the routes have had a direct impact on 6,603 points of sales in Marrakech and Fez.
David Brown, Marketing Director: Strategic Marketing in Rwanda
Rwanda is usually visited for its wildlife attractions - particularly the mountain gorillas. In addition to the country’s wildlife, it is rich with cultural heritage. With cultural tourism on the rise, the country’s cultural attractions have become an increasingly important component for the Rwanda experience. The Government of Rwanda and the World Bank partnered with Solimar’s Program Director to create a new strategic plan for the EAC region.
Through the new strategic plan, cultural tourism increased annual visits and the new marketing campaign reached 850,000 people. An example of this change can be seen at The Iby’Iwacu Cultural Village. This village sits just steps outside the gates of the Volcanoes National Park, and was designed to create opportunities for former gorilla poachers to find livelihoods in a more sustainable activities - demonstrating Rwandan traditions of food, dance, music, architecture, and healing to visitors. In addition, local artisans also use the cultural village as a marketplace to place to sell baskets and woodcrafts. This program has been an incredible example of how cultural tourism can support conservation efforts and create economic opportunities.
Annabel de Braganca, Marketing Coordinator: Marketing a Culture of Fusion
A traveler's first exposure to Namibia begins in a city, and one of the most interesting aspects of this encounter is taking in the unmistakable fusion between German-colonial influence & Namibian tradition. Take Swakopmund: even stopping for food or coffee is a unique experience. Visitors are able to enjoy classic Namibian barbecue in a cozy German-style café nestled somewhere between the arid Namib Desert and the wild Atlantic coast.
As a traveler heads to Northern Namibia, the unique and beautiful handicrafts and traditional dances of the Himba interest travelers. This semi-nomadic indigenous group attract a lot of interest from travelers, but exploiting this community is all too possible.
During the North American Destination Marketing Campaign (2010-2014) Solimar and its partners went to lengths to ensure that the local and North American travel trade was educating clients on appropriate behavior and interactions with native Namibian tribes; allowing cultural tourism to flourish, not degrade in Namibia. Solimar continues to connect sustainably minded North American travel trade members to well-informed Namibian ground handlers. As a team, we seek to introduce travelers to Namibia's wild & unique culture in a celebratory manner, not in what otherwise could be exploitative or invasive.
Simon Jones, Vice President: Revenues Generated by Cultural Tourism
Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s most visited park. It is home to tree-climbing lions, buffalo, hippos, and numerous other species. In addition to having vast bio-diversity, it is also where a group of women, known as the Kikorongo sell their intricate woven baskets. These women are part of an organization called Pearls of Uganda. This organization partnered with Solimar to increase the Kikorongo women’s revenue. We aided the Kikorongo Womens Group in establishing a small craft center appealing to visitors, and assisted them in developing craft workshops for visitors. Through the collaboration of Pearls of Uganda, Solimar, and strong work ethic of the Kikorongo women; the women were able to significantly increase their revenues and pay for a full time teacher at the local primary school and renovate the school building.
Gabriel, Director of Enterprise Marketing: Creating a Cultural Tourism Product
The largest nation in Central America, Nicaragua, encompasses many aspects of culture with its colonial seaside cities, scenic waters, and areas of deep cultural heritage. The regions of Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos are no exception. These areas contain several rural villages known for traditional crafts, including hammock making, artwork, ceramics, leatherwork, and furniture making. These artisans usually live in remote parts of Nicaragua, and needed a facet to distribute their goods. This is why Gabriel helped start a much needed partnership between a local Nicaraguan resort, Pacaya Lodge & Spa, and the local artisans. This partnership has developed cultural tourism products; artist workshop tours, interactive and educational tours, and art workshops for travelers. In addition, the Pacaya Lodge & Spa, has started to facilitate a sales and distribution for these tour products as well as the artists’ work itself.
Chris Seek, President/CEO: Tourism Strategy Resonates With Cultural Heritage
“Georgia is known for it’s Supras (feasts) that they have with guests - I have been to three now. These feasts are some of the most memorable travel experiences of my life. In addition to the excellent food, the practice of Tamada or making multiple toasts throughout the meal is incredible even if translation is required for non-Georgian speakers. They even maintain culture in the way they drink wine - proud to be the birthplace of wine and still use the Kvevri clay jars which is now on the UNESCO Intangible cultural heritage list” -Chris Seek
Georgia resides at the crossroads of Europe and Asia making the culture rich in cathedrals and churches, cuisine, customs, and folklore. In addition, Georgians have smaller enthno-cultures residing in different areas of the country. Each entity has produced its own values and traditions, but the country desired a national tourism strategy versus a regional one. The Georgia National Tourism Administration (GNTA) turned to the World Bank and Solimar to consult them in creating their own national tourism strategy, while highlighting the country’s rich culture.
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