Christopher Columbus did not visit Cuba as a tourist but, withoutdoubt, he has been the leading propagandist of tourism to the Caribbean island in recorded history.
According to some historians, Columbus wrote or said that it was “the most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” Of course, after sailing for several months across the Atlantic with only sea water in sight, the Genoese admiral may not have been completely objective in his assessment, which has served however to promote Cuba’s tourist
attractions around the world for centuries.
The issue of tourism in Cuba is controversial. When the neocolonial republic was born, just after the US occupation that frustrated the triumph of the independence war, two strong trends would influence the future of US tourism to Cuba: those who wanted Cuba to be a decent neighbor and those who wanted it to serve as a playground, where US citizens would find things that were forbidden in their country by morality, customs and law.
Between 1915 and 1930 tourism became Cuba’s third source of hard currency after sugar and tobacco. The fact that the United States was then waging a campaign against violence, vice and corruption including the Volstead Act, also known as “Prohibition”, also helped.
A combination between the Great Depression of the 30s, the end of the Prohibition era, and World War II seriously damaged Cuba’s tourist industry. “Tourism” in Cuba was henceforth limited to the scions of many wealthy US families who fulfilled their duties in the calm military bases in Cuba, far from the battlefield. Their financial solvency kept open the tourist stores that offered goods that in those days which could only be found in the US black market.
In the 1950s ordinary tourists began to visit the island in significant numbers.
In 1946, US organized crime had arranged at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba a conference that greatly influenced Cuban tourism because it outlined the modus operandi that would govern the relationship between organized crime and tourism in the hemisphere in the subsequent years.
Following that meeting, the most important Mafia summit after the Atlantic City Conference of 1929, Havana became the preferred route for the narcotics trade with the United States.
In the nineteen-fifties, 1.7 million US citizens visited Havana, where there were no limitations on drinking, gambling and other entertainment not socially or legally accepted at home. The arrival of tourists grew at a rate of 8%, and Havana began to be known as the “Las Vegas of Latin America”.
But in the last months of 1958, international tourism declined almost entirely due to the situation of intense war in the country, with the guerrillas in the countryside and clashes between police and revolutionary fighters in the cities.
The gang of murderers and torturers of the Batista dictatorship fled the country the first day of January 1959 to settle in South Florida. The Cuba the image a pleasure paradise.
In January 1961, the United States declared that travelling to Cuba was contrary to US foreign policy and national interest, and shortly after severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. Since 90% of the visitors were from the US, that marked the disappearance of foreign tourism in Cuba.
In Cuban families, the prevailing feeling was that tourism was closely associated with the evils of capitalism such as gangs, pimping, prostitution, drugs and the social and moral degradation that had grown rapidly during the years of the Batista dictatorship. Thus, its decline to almost nothing in the years immediately after the triumph of the revolution was greeted with satisfaction.
Now, after the announcement that both countries have begun a process conducive to the normalization of their relations, there is talk about the eventual lifting of the ban which applies to US citizens traveling to Cuba.
On the North side, travel agencies await for the principle of the forbidden fruit to spectacularly motivate cravings to visit the island.
On the South side, it is understood that the economic benefits that will come with US tourism justify the risks that many fear because of bad memories. But it is known that the experience Cuba already has with Canadian and European tourism will allow US tourists to receive a dignified welcome, without the debauchery and vices which the healthy part of the population of both nations reject.
By Manuel E. Yepe