Why Cuba’s zip lines and B&B’s have fallen on hard times

Idalmis González Pérez wants more Americans swinging from her trees.

On a balmy afternoon, dozens of children and parents in white helmets scramble up a flight of wooden steps wrapped around a tree, screaming out to one another in a variety of English and Spanish accents. Las Terrazas employees clip visitors to the wire cable one by one and give them a small push. Then they fly down a mile-long zip line, squealing as they speed over ravines, ferns, and lizards.

Like many of the other employees, Ms. González has lived and worked at Las Terrazas, a nature reserve and tourist destination west of Havana, her entire life, so she is used to touring strangers around her home. But over the past two years, Ms. González has watched fewer visitors soar above her head.

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Recent hurricanes have affected tourism numbers in beach resort towns like Varadero, Cuba, but the tourism market in Las Terrazas has been hit by more than storms, says Ms. González.

“The media manipulates a lot about Cuba,” she says, “and I’m not the only one who thinks that.”

Ecotourism – visits to beautiful, exotic, and sometimes threatened natural environments – is an economic niche that Cubans say they are uniquely positioned to fill. The clear blue waters, dense jungles, and towering royal palms, which made Christopher Columbus proclaim the island “the most beautiful land I have ever seen” more than 500 years ago, are largely preserved today.

This kind of tourism benefits both the visitor and the host, say some Cubans: Where high-rise hotels and cruise ships often provide a canned vacation and can despoil the landscape, zip lines and nature walks are a positive visitor experience as well as a means of preserving nature.

“It is so much better to grow with quality,” says Roberto Perez Rivero, coordinator of the nature and community program at The Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, one of the only environmental nonprofits on the island.

But, like many other aspects of modern Cuba, ecotourism is falling short of its potential. After years of rapid growth during the Obama administration, small-scale tourism ventures, such as Las Terrazas or Havana’s paladares (private restaurants) and casas particulares (private hotels or room rentals), have struggled over the past year in the face of President Donald Trump’s vows to restrict U.S. travel to the island.

Now they’re likely entering even harder times given that Mr. Trump has followed through on his threat to push U.S.-Cuba travel back to pre-Obama levels. On June 4 the Trump administration announced a U.S. ban on cruise travel to Cuba and educational and cultural “people-to-people” visits to the island. These were the most common categories of permitted U.S. tourism in recent years.

The Trump administration says its reversal is part of an effort to keep U.S. tourism dollars out of the hands of “the Cuban regime.”

“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement announcing the travel curbs.

But Cubans on the island say the administration’s restrictions will produce something of an ironic result. Tourism is the largest – if only – mainstay of the country’s fledgling private economy. According to U.S. experts, perhaps half of the 600,000 Cubans who hold business licenses are involved in some manner with the tourist trade. Thus the new travel cuts may fall the hardest on the part of the Cuban economy the U.S. most wants to encourage – and on ordinary employees of that private sector such as Ms. González.

A PARADOX

Both Cuba’s environment and its economic reliance on tourism are products of the 1962 U.S. embargo, in which the United States fully stopped exports to Cuba and issued sanctions against other countries if they traded with the island.

The embargo, which is still in place today, has made it difficult for Cubans to get basic supplies, such as building materials, which in turn makes it difficult to keep up with tourists’ demands. At the same time, the embargo has kept Cuba’s environment more pristine than its trade-capable neighbors. The island doesn’t have much runoff pollution, for example, because it hasn’t been able to import fertilizer and pesticides in the first place.

That’s not to say that the environment and tourism in Cuba have been entirely symbiotic. Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, the country is subject to an ecotourism paradox: the more pristine the environment, the more visitors who want to experience it, thus decreasing its pristineness. The peninsula where Varadero is located, for example, is lined with white sand and turquoise waters – as well as all-inclusive resorts built so close to the beach that they cast shadows over the sea.

“Varadero, in a way, became a sacrifice area,” says Mr. Perez. “We started learning that it was hard to preserve things.”

Not everyone would agree with Mr. Perez. Many Cubans see the tourism industry – in all its forms – as synonymous with the country’s emerging private sector and economic potential.

Former President Raúl Castro liberalized select small businesses over the past decade, such as taxis, paladares, and casas particulares. These economic reforms, which largely serve the tourism industry, paralleled with a spike in visitors after former President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba in 2016, as part of his efforts to normalize relations between the two countries.

Between 2015 and 2017, the number of U.S. tourists had increased by almost fourfold and the number of tourists overall had increased by almost 1 million. The state-run tourism sector has injected $3 billion a year into the Cuban economy, and its private counterpart, fueled by casas particulares and paladares, has contributed about the same.

The private sector, which now provides jobs for as many as 4 in 10 working-age Cubans, has created economic opportunity unprecedented in the country since the 1959 revolution. Now it’s common, say locals, for taxi drivers to make more money than doctors. The average monthly salary for government jobs is about $20, which a taxi driver could make in a few hours shuttling tourists around Havana, or a paladar owner could make off one foreign couple at lunch.

CHICKEN AND TOILET PAPER

One Airbnb renter who declined to provide his name says that before Mr. Obama’s visit, he would host about three tourists a week in his three-bedroom apartment above the crowded Obispo Street in Old Havana. Visitors would typically stay for only a night or two, usually on their way to Mexico. Rarely were they American. But a few months after Mr. Obama’s visit, the renter says he would host three to four Americans each week, and they would stay for about five days. Cuba was no longer a layover. It was the destination.

Other things changed, too. The national news on television started talking about Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. in a positive way, says the Obispo Street renter, such as how the island started receiving chicken and toilet paper from the U.S.

“Obama came and told people the reality of Cuba, and everyone wants to come,” he adds. “Then Trump messes everything up.”

In 2017, Mr. Trump announced plans to tighten travel restrictions that had been loosened under Mr. Obama, making it difficult for Americans to travel to Cuba on their own.

During the first half of 2018, the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba (not including Cuban Americans) was down almost 24% from that period in 2017, a drop that Cuban officials and travel analysts have attributed to both Hurricane Irma and worry about the Trump administration’s prospective restrictions. However, figures began to tick up again during the first half of 2019.

Americans who did visit Cuba over the last year were likely to travel with tour groups or on cruise ships. The number of cruise ship passengers who came to Cuba in the first four months of this year was triple the figure for the same period last year.

But this often meant traveling in a way that cut out small businesses, like a three-bedroom apartment on Obispo Street. Tour groups are typically state-run, and the cruise ship companies typically dock in state ports, partner with state agencies, and book rooms in state hotels.

Michel Bernal, commercial director for Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, said earlier this year that occupancy in Havana’s private bed-and-breakfasts dropped from near full capacity as Mr. Obama loosened restrictions to less than 45%, according to The Associated Press.

“The tourism industry was booming in Cuba,” says Ricardo Torres, an economist at the University of Havana. “There was a lot of money flowing into Cuban families. [But] now we have this contradiction.”

ECOTOURISM AT A SWIMMING AREA

At Baños del San Juan, a swimming area outside Las Terrazas, locals and tourists alike splash in the green water and picnic alongside its banks. Kassandra Koutsoftas, a German architecture student, notices a difference between local people and herself, sunbathing a few feet from the river. The locals visit the river to socialize, whereas tourists – like herself – are there to appreciate the environmental qualities that they don’t often see at home.

But the term “ecotourism” is hard to define, says Ms. Koutsoftas: You know it when you see it.

“Sometimes you have mountains and then a fence around it,” says Ms. Koutsoftas, thinking back to her visit to the island of Cyprus. “But here,” she says, trailing off as she looks around at the vibrant trees, grass, and water.

To many visitors, local people are a part of ecotourism. Stefan Bruins, a tourist from Amsterdam who is staying at Las Terrazas, came to the Baños because he heard that it is a beautiful place where the locals go.

“Ecotourism is anything that makes you feel connected with nature,” says Ms. González, the employee of Las Terrazas. “People who choose Las Terrazas choose real ecotourism.”

In the last years of the Obama administration, she says, Las Terrazas welcomed about 45,000 foreign visitors annually. In 2018, this number dropped to 40,000 visitors, including native Cubans.

Back on Obispo Street, the renter sits on a white plastic chair in a dark corner of the hallway, a cool relief from the afternoon Caribbean sun. He is angled toward the door in case anyone sees his sign on the street below and wanders up in need of a room. In the courtyard below the hallway, drying laundry hangs still in the breezeless afternoon. The renter’s three doors are also still, propped open. The rooms, modest with bare floors and striped sheets, are empty.

He’s now back to one American visitor each week, and there’s no more American chicken or toilet paper. Although the renter is frustrated, he still smiles because he loves speaking English, and it’s rare now that he gets to practice.

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