The Tourist Rush to Cuba: Is it right?

As the relationship between the United States and Cuba opens up, Tal Gurevich raises important concerns about ethical travel.  Tal also unpacks the troubling fascination that tourists often have with observing life under an oppressive regime in its purest form, without the influx of foreign, ‘Western’ influence. 

Last month regulations which lift some of the prohibitive restrictions on travel and trade between Cuba and the United States were introduced. Although these rules do not spell the end of the five-decade long embargo, they go some way towards beginning a normalization of relations between the island and its northern neighbor. While we can only speculate on the impact these changes will have on Cuba, the government and its citizens, what is clear is that this somewhat surprising turn of events is at the forefront of people’s minds.

As I waited at the boarding gate to catch a flight from Los Angeles to Miami, a young woman sitting beside me remarked to her friend that she was very excited about going to Cuba. The friend, although clearly excited for her girlfriend’s impending adventure, lamented that she wouldn’t be able to visit Cuba before ‘it changed’.

© John Delconte/Creative Commons License

© John Delconte/Creative Commons License

The conversation became inaudible as it was announced that the plane was ready for boarding. Throughout the bumpy 5-hour flight, I kept on thinking, what is it exactly that the woman and many others like her are in a rush to see?

I thought about the rush for rum and cigars but quickly ruled that out, together with some other explanations: the immediate rush is certainly not to the many all-inclusive holiday resorts on the island. Wanting to participate in cultural events, festivals and festivities is also a doubtful reason – these will not change overnight due to the new rules.

What then, do people think will change overnight? Maybe it’s that something about Cuba that makes it different, non-Western, an exotic adversary to the US. Perhaps they are curious to see what that ‘otherness’ means, what overt propaganda looks like and how people go about their daily lives under an oppressive regime.

Real change?

There is an underlying expectation that life will be different under the new normal – more ‘Westernised’, better and easier. However, the effects of the changes are far from clear and are hotly debated. Some people point out that the easing of travel restrictions and the introduction of better commercial relations will be of tremendous benefit to Cuban citizens and that increased tourism will have a positive effect. Others are more skeptical and believe that the only people who will really benefit are those in the government.

Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, mentioned that “several Cuban dissidents were recently arrested, and this was after President Obama said he wanted to open relations with Cuba”, perhaps indicating that either way the consequences are far from straight forward.

While the effects of the changes are unclear, people can still question the rush to Cuba and their own personal choice from a non-consequential ethical perspective. They can and should question their motives. Is it from an impulse of curiosity, of wanting to see what life is like under current conditions?

© People In Need Cuba/Creative Commons License

© People In Need Cuba/Creative Commons License

Cuba is an island where there is no freedom of speech and where many other liberties are curtailed. Where there is a huge gap between what people earn in their official jobs and how much is needed to survive (doctors are paid $20 dollars a month). Where food is scarce and many people pay a lot of money and take huge risks to leave the country because the situation on the island is unbearable. With the changes to the regulations, Americans can now have a glimpse into these people’s ordinary lives for a period of time and then return to their own comfortable ones. Is this rush to see Cuba ethical?

There is no straight forward answer. Some would say that people are implicitly endorsing the Cuban regime by visiting it. Others believe in the merits of experiencing a different way of life and see it as a positive educational experience for both tourists and locals. There are many debates about what it means to a responsible traveler. However, one thing is certain – these are exciting times. Many have a natural curiosity to visit and see regimes such as Cuba and North Korea now before they ‘change’. Perhaps people want to be the first ones into such countries, to get the ‘off-the-beaten-track’ experiences in Myanmar. Perhaps they have other reasons. The motives for and the implications of such visits and the rush to Cuba are complicated and at the end of the day the choice is a very personal one. The important thing is that people think before booking that flight.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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