As the Biden Administration's Cuba travel policy is eased - and a new wave of travelers is expected - it's important that we respect our impact on the tiny island.
cuba sustainable tourism
Cuba taxis waiting for tourists. Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

A recent ease on travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans by the Biden administration may mean visiting familia in Cuba this summer after all. Here are some traveler pro-tips for travelers heading back to Cuba, and the wave of tourists (and celebrities) planning to visit.. 

The tiny island is embracing new technology (hello 4G service!) and as of April 2022, Covid restrictions have been lifted with travelers no longer required to demonstrate proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test. This will for sure increase Cuba’s tourism numbers this high season. In 2020 alone, Cuba saw 1 million tourists taking advantage of popular beach packages, UNESCO World Heritage sites, historic attractions, and national parks. 

Examples of responsible tourism in Cuba can look like lodging in small-scale casas particulares… eating at small family-run restaurants… and buying your souvenirs directly from the artisans instead of at the airport. 

But visitors need to tread lightly (and conscientiously) if we are to enjoy Cubas’s beaches, cities, and culture for more generations to come. 

Overtourism Concerns in Cuba

An upsurge in Cuban tourism, along with a new wave of visas being issued to Cuban-Americans with the easing of US restrictions in recent days, is likely to create a high tide of impact on this tiny island. Unlike other islands, Cuba has been spared from decades of excessive tourists. Overtourism has significantly affected most islands around the world, the impact on the environment, reefs and sea devastating and at times even irreversible. 

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The high demands overtourism places on island life includes the increase in noise and air pollution, the destruction of fragile eco-systems with the construction of new hotels, piers, and tourist zones. The ripple effect of hi-density tourism is what, over time, erodes the authentic beauty of a fragile place. More people, more cruise ships, more trash, more fishing, all impact the Cuban way of life.

Look at Italy with the saturation of visitors to Venice; the government recently implemented a new reservation policy and fee for visitors wanting to visit in 2023. The devastating impact tourism has played on the delicate waterways and structures of Venice is only now being addressed — meanwhile in Cuba there is still time to protect the island from these irreversible trends we are seeing with high-density travel destinations.

Sustainable Tourism vs Responsible Tourism in Cuba

In order to make sustainable tourism the new norm as we travel (and not just some catchy millennial phrase), we must first know what it means. 

Sustainable tourism is an intentional practice that invites local and national governments and communities to make priority the preservation, conservation, and protection of a country’s environment, economy and culture. 

According to the website FutureLearn.com, the main responsibilities of sustainable tourism include:

  1. Protecting the environment, natural resources, and wildlife;
  2. Providing socio-economic benefits for communities that live in tourist destinations;
  3. Conserving cultural heritage and creating respectful tourist experiences;
  4. Bringing tourists and local communities together for mutual benefit;
  5. Creating inclusive and accessible tourist opportunities.

Meanwhile, responsible tourism holds the tourist accountable for making individual actions and decisions that maximize a positive impact while traveling. The traveler’s goal, therefore, is to impose the least amount of negative impact. 

Respect locals by asking first if you can take their picture, don’t assume Cubans are wanting to be the subject of your photo-op

Examples of responsible tourism in Cuba can look like lodging in small-scale casa particulares, or bed and breakfasts, rather than a large hotel chain; eating at small family-run restaurants where you directly impact the local economy; supporting tiny bodegas instead of supermarket chains, and buying your souvenirs directly from the artisans instead of at the airport. 

Pro-tips that will help you prepare for your trip:

khloe kardashian cuba
Source: Instagram @KhloeKardasian

Pro-tip Numero 1: Respect Cultural Spaces and the History of Cuba

Ahem, we are looking at you, Khloe. There is nothing more cringeworthy than seeing a tourist doing a tree pose on a sacred site. I get it, you did it for the Gram, but be sure you are taking into consideration the story and the impact behind the site where you stand (or pose).

I know it’s absurd to think a tourist (or celebrity) would be crass enough to take a “thumbs up” picture at a sacred memorial site, but it happens (all the time!). Avoid being that person when traveling around Cuba. 

It’s really quite simple, respect the history and suffering of the countries you visit. Simple gestures and a basic “buenos dias” and “no gracias” go a long way. Respect locals by asking first if you can take their picture, don’t assume Cubans are wanting to be the subject of your photo-op. And lastly, paying your respect to a historical site might mean you miss out on your sexy selfie, but it’s not always about your IG feed, now is it Khloe?

Pro-tip Numero 2: Take Your Trash With You, Amigos!

The first and most immediate impact of overtourism most often manifests along the beaches and within urban cities, like Havana, and it’s trash! Think plastic food wrappers, aluminum cans, and beer bottles finding their way along the once pristine beaches left by locals but also touristas

As Cuba plays catch-up with national ‘Do Not Litter’ campaigns, and adding more trashcans and recycling sites, it’s important that as tourists we continue to help maintain the beauty of the island. Therefore, a pro-tip practice includes following the motto: “leave no trace,” this will ensure generations to come can enjoy litter-free beaches and cities. 

Before you travel, check out REI’s Leave No Trace 7 Principals for tips on how to protect and preserve outdoor spaces.

cuba sustainable tourism
Amigo Skate’s Go Skateboarding Day, 2017. Photo: Amigo Skate Cuba | Scott Furkay

Pro-tip Numero 3: Avoid Giving Money to Children Begging

I know it’s hard! 

Extranjeros, or tourists, are one of the main contributors to the success of child exploitation worldwide. Despite your purest of intentions, when you give money to a child begging, you are also contributing directly to the problem and perpetuating child labor. 

As Founder of international anti-trafficking organization, Urban Light, I’m all too familiar with the heartbreak of witnessing a vulnerable child or adolescent begging on the street. But most often the child or that child’s ‘family’ will not receive the monedas or dolares that you drop into their hand. 

cuba sustainable tourism
Photo: Noé Menendez, 2019

More often than not there is an organized crime syndicate, a pimp, or a family member running the show behind the curtain (or around the corner). Remind yourself as you smile and tell them “gracias, no puedo”, that it’s our dollars that continue to keep families and criminal organizations flooding the streets exploiting Cuba’s children and youth. 

There is a difference between being charitable and being a conscious advocate. If you want to give back (which I absolutely encourage!), consider donating your dollars, food, health supplies, or new clothing to a local organization.  One of my favorite organizations is Amigo Skate, also known as the “Robin Hoods of Havana”. Check them out!

clandestina small business havana cuba
Clandestina is a small business in Habana Vieja that offers trendy momentos for you to take home from your trip. Photo: Karen Vierbuchen

Pro-tip Numero 4: Support the Local Economy

By opting to stay at one of the many cozy casas particulares, also known as bed and breakfasts, you are directly supporting the livelihood of that particular family and community (bravo!). These family-run B&B’s usually are accompanied by amazing paladares, which are small restaurants, where you can find abuelita and hija in the kitchen creating an awesome homemade menu. The food and the local vibe is sure to be authentically Cubano.

Be sure you’re also tipping your waiters in the paladares you are frequenting, as well as the housekeepers at your casa particular. Planning on visiting a national park while in Cuba? Hire (and tip!) a local guide. Many of the guides offering their private tours are oftentimes employed by the state, earning on average $15-$20 Cuban pesos a month.

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Lastly, support local vendors and buy a paquete de galletas!

Pro-tip Numero 5: Beware of the Well-Skilled Jineteros

A jinetero/a is the charming and persuasive person you will randomly, yet inevitably, meet on the streets of La Habana. If you’re strolling the Melicón, or another popular tourist attraction, you are certain to encounter these savvy and persuasive individuals. They are multi-talented and skilled in the ‘art of the hustle’ and will promise you everything from Cohibas and rum (most likely fake), promises of the ‘best’ paladar in Havana, and (illegal) sex for sale. Their target is trusting tourists, and their favorite prey is a sinister tourist looking to exploit Cuba’s most vulnerable people and situations. 

Remember, a simple smile and “no gracias” are usually enough to let them know you’re not interested. No need to be rude, or overly harsh, just walk on by.

Conclusion – ¡Chao pescao! 

¡Bravo! The fact that you got this far – demonstrates your intention in respecting your tourist footprint and impact (mil gracias)! Now, go and enjoy an ice-cold mojito and some local Habana flavor. ¡Chao pescao!

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Alezandra Russell is an award-winning activist, author and founder of Urban Light, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the lives of #Boys affected by human trafficking. Since opening its doors in 2009, the organization has provided emergency services to over 9,000 vulnerable young men and Boys. Urban Light remains one of the only organizations in the world working specifically on behalf of Boys who are overlooked, forgotten, and ignored in the global discussion of trafficking and exploitation. Russell, who was forced to flee Thailand in June 2018 as a result of her work, continues to advocate across the globe for the safety of trafficking survivors, migrants, refugees and marginalized populations.

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