In March of 2016, a fellow PLP student and myself were given the opportunity by the PLP Passport Fund and the DU Partners in Scholarship Fund to conduct research in Havana, Cuba for two weeks. As a team with background in Economics, International Studies, and Sociology, we set out to get a look into the bourgeoning tourist economy created by the lifting of travel restrictions and a shift toward tourism as a source of personal income.
Our plan was to conduct interviews with Cubans throughout the city who were involved in one or more of the many tourist-focus jobs available. These included owning casas particulares, which were homes with extra rooms that could be rented out, as well as working in small restaurants or driving a taxi.
What we had already learned in our preliminary research was that there was a considerable draw to tourist jobs due to their lucrative nature. Employment in Cuba is generally state sponsored, and the level of poverty in Cuba reflects the low salaries paid by the government. By contrast, Cubans entering the tourist economy have become the country’s first entrepreneurs, renovating their homes and opening restaurants to earn money directly from tourists arriving from all corners of the globe. For example, a Cuban renting out just one extra room in their home can earn a weekly state sponsored salary in just two days, allowing them to invest in their families as well as grow their business.
Through our research we sought to learn about the accessibility of the tourist sector for Cuban individuals as well as the degree of shift from state sponsored jobs to jobs in tourism. Was the monetary draw of tourism pulling Cubans away from state sponsored sectors such as medicine, education, and engineering?
During our time in Cuba, we were able to conduct almost 30 interviews with casa owners, restaurant staff, and taxi drivers in 5 major areas of Havana. What we found was that while there were Cubans who had left previous occupations for entrepreneurship in tourism, they were not the majority. Many Cubans involved in tourism saw it as temporary, or as an additional source of income. Those we talked to did not report a flight from state sponsored jobs yet, however a few mentioned that it was a possibility as tourism continued to grow. We could see from exploring the city that there were few city blocks that lacked signs for casas particulares and tourist-heavy areas were packed with restaurants promoted by men with menus recruiting hungry tourists off the street.
We further hypothesized that as tourism continued to grow, evidenced by cruise ships and international airline companies gaining access to the country, the effect of tourism opportunities would have a greater effect on the Cuban economy and society. We learned that the level of tourism Cuba was already experiencing was overwhelming for its citizens, and the pressure on the government to allow further foreign investment in hotels and other tourist-oriented business was building. For these reasons we remain curious as to what Cuba will be like in a few years, and how dramatically the Cuban economy and society will continue to change.
While our research was based exclusively in Havana, thanks to PLP Passport funds we were able to stay in casas particulares and eat in small restaurants all over the city. We found that our most comprehensive and data-rich interviews were with the owners of casas at which we spent the night or restaurants at which we ate, and the relationships our team formed through these interactions were among the greatest parts of our research experience. This project could not have been done without the help of PLP alumni and donors, so for that we thank you!
Post written by: Nate Zeile
This project was made possible through the awarding of a Passport Grant made possible by the generous contributions of PLP Alumni and Friends. Thank you to all who empower PLPers to do amazing things!