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This post considers our activities on Day 8--Reflections on the Flight Home.
1. It is difficult to avoid the contrast between the well manicured and well tended approach to the Varadero beaches and the impression that tourists will likely make on their arrival and departure from Cuba. It is well known that the airports lack amenities that are common in other high income and volume destinations. The roads to and from the airport are not well thought out and do not present Havana at its best. If impressions help a tourist decide whether to return (and how much to spend) then the first and last impressions of the country leave room for much improvement. This isn't the same sort of problem that was mentioned on the road to Viñales (or for that matter to Cienfuegos and Trinidad from Havana--though these are more understandably problematic as well). Rather, the impression is subliminal yet important--in the sort of tourist sector that Cuba seeks to maximize its revenues form, the lack of attention to its airports may well cost it tourist dollars. The problem here isn't that conditions are horrible. That could be explained. The problem is more subtle and to some extent more corrosive--the Cuba can't do better. That impression, hard to break and easy to form, is one that Cuban officials worrying about the tourist sector ought to worry about more.2. That problem of entry and exits is not just limited to visual impressions and the difficulties of conveyance (which of course are not terrible, just suggestive in a negative way). What makes the problem worse is the lost opportunity for making money that the condition of roads and airports produce. What do I mean? The maximization of the value of tourism is the ability of the host state to extract money from the visitors (for value, of course). It is not clear that the Cuban official who think about tourism have thought about the way that both the travel to and from the airport and the airport facilities themselves might be turned to significantly increase tourist expenditures on the way in and out of the country. The U.K., Gulf States, and some Asian states have mastered the art of embedding commerce and comfort into their airports, providing mixed services (high and low end) along a broad range of activities that book end the travel experience in positive (and lucrative) ways. The Cubans have a long way to go. There is no reason why the Cubans could not do the same, offering a wide variety of food, trinkets, luxury items, and especially in Cuba's case rum and cigars. Yet little in the way of services is offered. There is still the feel of late 1980s Eastern European utility at the airport rather than the sort of atmosphere that the Cuban are certainly capable of producing (at places like Varadero).3. That 1980s Eastern European utilitarian feel carries over to the bureaucracy charged with moving tourists from outside through immigration to the waiting areas--in some cases large holding pens that merely increase the desire to leave. Here is where the lost opportunities for offering services and products are heightened by a bureaucracy that cannot resist the temptation, at times, to hyper enforce "security measures" requiring the confiscation of a number of tourist items that are deemed "dangerous. One cannot blame the bureaucracy entirely--the horror stories coming from the United States suggests this is a global problem. But still, the bad taste it leaves with tourists cannot serve Cuban interests. Sure, one can take the position that this is unimportant because, as I have heard it expressed, there are so many tourists and potential tourists that it would take years to process everyone who wants to come to Cuba the first time. This view might well be naive. It is oblivious to the damaging effects of reputation; and when a large enough group of grumpy tourists trade unpleasant stories, then equally exotic tropical occasions again begin to look more appealing than Cuba. The unpleasantness of bureaucracies extend to the petty. As Cuba seeks to squeeze funds from tourists it has decided to levy a small tax on art work (also used, as one understands this to prevent the national art treasures form being smuggled out of the country). But the reality is that the steady flow of $3 CUC per canvas tax eventually adds up to an amount that may provide some bureaucratic office with what for it might be an important source of funds. What makes the levy annoying is that it is sprung after passing through security and at a point when many have used the last of their local currency. When this is brought to the attention of the usually very polite and sympathetic collector of revenue, it is explained that the tax ought to have been levied at the point of sale. But of course it is not. And in typically bureaucratic fashion--rather than fixing point of sale tax collection, the bureaucrats lie in wait to collect at the last possible moment. Again it is this little things that tend to leave a bad taste. And in a highly competitive tourist sector market, the last thing that one ought to cultivate is bad taste int he mouths of tourists who help establish a destination's reputation.
These cautions, even from a sympathetic traveler, point out the difficulties that the Cubans face as they seek to re-enter global trade and production regimes. It has very little to do with capacity--it has everything to do with a sometimes stubborn unwillingness to think about the consumer rather than the recipient of income. That, in turn, may be one of the consequences of the disjunction between markets oriented basis of global tourism and a state ideology that is grounded on the belief that markets are inimical to the political economy of the state. This is not to suggest that the Cuban political economy is right or wrong. It is rather to suggest that its current orientation has consequences when the state seeks to maximize revenue from customers (and suppliers) who are as deeply attached to markets ideology and the home state is tied to its own.