I am Cuba, the Cuba of the casinos, but also of the people.– Narrator from the film, Soy Cuba, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964
Cuba has been a popular destination for tourists for a long time. An island country full of natural beauty and recreational attractions, it should come as no surprise. Although currently at a standstill due to the global pandemic, tourism is a major source of revenue for the country and only continues to increase in importance. The comings and goings of visitors, however, have not been without problems, and the sunny optimism projected through its advertisements belie a complicated history. With its more relaxed customs towards the consumption of alcohol and other indulgent pastimes, Cuba was a playground for American tourists during the early part of the 20th century, and, again in the 1950s, when the mafia came to dominate the tourist industry. The ugliness of this is portrayed in the first vignette of Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film, Soy Cuba, which shows destitute Cuban people contrasted with the splendor of American-run gambling casinos.
Tourism virtually ended with the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and did not officially start again until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even with tourists’ return, the Cuban people were intentionally isolated from them in what is described as ‘enclave tourism’ or ‘tourism apartheid.’ However, prostitution, gambling, and other vices were still very much pervasive. In 2015, there was a shimmer of hope as the American travel ban was lifted, and once again cruise ships docked in Havana or direct flights arrived from major American cities. Cuba’s economy began to flourish as a result. However, these concessions were later reversed, contributing further to Cuba’s current economic despair.
With travel restrictions still in place, we are left with only travel literature to capture the reminiscences of an imagined past and the visions of an idyllic future trip. The selection of materials in this collection shows the complexity of Cuban tourism, from its colonial past to its culinary present.