If you are among the affluent who travel in search of adventure, seclusion or authenticity, Cuba is the most interesting place in the world today.
Most people don’t realize that Cuba’s coastline is 40% longer than Florida’s. And even fewer people understand that Cuba’s coastline is virtually untouched by tower condo buildings, asphalt parking lots and fried Twinkie vendors.
The island nation’s cities are equally compelling. Old Havana’s (Havana Vieja) many colonial squares are surrounded by architectural wonders waiting for the continuing renovations that will accommodate the anticipated waves of well-heeled tourists. The UNESCO-supported World Heritage Site of Colonial Havana—one of nine World Heritage Sites on the island (the most in any country of Latin America)—is a simple illustration of what’s at stake in Cuba’s urban areas.
Endless stretches of beaches, protected by natural bays and archipelagos, are already attracting millions of tourists annually. Less developed – but also holding great tourism potential – are the bucolic provincial towns and, for the more adventurous travelers, the vast areas of protected parks, ecological reserves, and coral reefs.
These varied attractions provoke questions of whether a wave of visitors will quickly spoil the very assets that attract them. Indeed, if not well managed, Old Havana may come to resemble favorite tourism destinations such as Venice and Quebec City or the city centers of such tourism hotspots as New York, Buenos Aires, London, and Paris.
In 2015, Havana along hosted 1.7 million visitors, and the Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) projects a 37% jump in 2016.
Yet Cuba as a whole runs little risk of becoming overrun by foreigners. There is plenty of scope for the expansion of tourism. One common indicator of a nation’s tourism potential is the ratio of international tourist arrivals relative to its population. By way of comparison, this ratio in the Dominican Republic is 0.49, in Costa Rica 0.53, and in Jamaica 0.76, whereas in Cuba the ratio of tourists to the population had only reached 0.26 in 2014.
To some observers, the Varadero peninsula is already over-crowded, yet its hotel density is low compared to other similar destinations such as Mexico (Cancún) or in many other summertime beach resorts worldwide (ie. the Spanish Costa Brava, Chile’s Viña del Mar, or New York’s Coney Island) – all falling well short of the density in Brazil’s Copacabana.
Should the Cuban government’s ambitious hotel expansion programs come to fruition, only a small fraction of the 1,400-plus islands and bays along the island’s 5,746 kilometers of coastline will have been developed. Nevertheless, even this limited growth will have to be carefully managed if the new influx is to avoid bringing with it environmental damage.