Havana, circa 1957. The Hotel Riviera rattles with laughter and the congas beat as smartly dressed Americans glide between the showroom and casino. Back rooms swirl with the cigar smoke of Cuban officials and American racketeers, pockets lined with casino profits.
Fast forward a couple of years, and a uniform-clad revolutionary named Fidel Castro stands in the same hotel, vowing to end gambling and American interventionism — a goal he would quickly make reality, along with the nationalization of all Cuban hotel-casinos. Soviet backing would allow Cuban tourism to survive over the next few decades, but the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the stranglehold of a decrepit Castro regime would ultimately thrust Cuba into economic ruin.
The story of Cuba’s tourism industry is a tale of starts and stops over the past half-century, and one that professor and associate dean of graduate and international programs Tony Henthorne wanted to tell.
“Cuba is the largest county in the Caribbean, and it’s the closest country to U.S. territory, yet it is the most unknown,” Henthorne said. His new book Tourism in Cuba: Casinos, Castros, and Challenges — a culmination of decades of work he’s done in the Caribbean as a scholar, tourism consultant, and speaker — chronicles the island’s complicated relationship with tourism against the backdrop of corruption, political upheaval, and isolationism.
But more than anything, Henthorne’s book tells a story of survival.
“If you weren’t in the hospitality business or sugarcane, you weren’t going to survive in Cuba,” Henthorne said.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Cuba was the No. 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean, and 95 percent of tourists were Americans, Henthorne said. But the casino business, run by Americans, was corrupt, and all the money was going back to the States and organized crime. This led to the repression and disillusionment of the Cuban people, which in turn left the door wide open for Castro, who promptly banished what he dubbed the “colonial” American presence. It was a dramatic, if not epic, split between the countries that endures to this day.
It’s easy to see why Cuba’s historical dependence on tourism is begrudged by many on the island. But if Cubans were ambivalent about tourism to begin with, communism only complicated the matter.
“During the so-called ‘Special Period,’ after Cuba lost funding from the Soviet Union, Cubans were desperate for cash, literally starving in the streets,” Henthorne said. “They had to come up with ways to make money. While Cubans hated tourism, they ultimately decided that international tourism, which was the money machine back in the day, would be the way to make money again.”
Cubans’ love-hate relationship with tourism intrigued Henthorne as a young professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, prompting him to volunteer for a fact-finding mission in 1994 to determine the viability of a study-abroad program on the island. The program, he hoped, would expose students to Cuba’s two-tiered system, in which workers in the tourism industry were paid in strong American dollars, while everyone else was paid in local currency.
“Professional people were leaving their careers as doctors, architects, lawyers, and teachers to work in cocktail lounges in big tourist hotels,” Henthorne said. “It was a business environment unlike any other in the world and a great laboratory to study in.”
Despite this, Henthorne was vexed by the obstacles that stood in the way of a full-blown tourism renaissance in Cuba. The country had fallen into disrepair under Castro. Basic services, like electricity, were unreliable. Hot water and elevators often didn’t work, in stark contrast to competitors like Jamaica. Cuba seemed hopelessly locked in time.
“All those stories about 1957 Chevys in Cuba are true,” Henthorne said. “The island went for many, many years without seeing much in the way of new products or new construction.”
But things have improved in Cuba in recent years, he added, with the help of foreign investors like Spain. Tourists will still see an assortment of jalopies on the road, but elevators will work most of the time.
Still, of Cuba’s 5 million visitors a year, Americans remain conspicuously absent, despite a brief thaw in relations between Cuba and the U.S. under the Obama administration. It’s an artifact, Henthorne said, of the “bizarre grudge match” that has endured for six decades.
Americans can travel to Cuba if they’re willing to jump through a few hoops, which include getting a license under one of 12 legal categories, like humanitarianism or journalism. You won’t find tourism on the list, though — an irony not lost on Henthorne, who continues pounding the pavement in Cuba to prepare tourism executives there for the inevitability of Americans’ return.