TOURISM

23 03 2011

 

View from the pool at Brisa Sierra Mar

This weekend I visited an All-inclusive tourist resort – the first tourist resort that I have visited in Cuba and the first All-Inclusive anywhere. I have always been prejudiced towards such places, imagining them to be full of morbidly obese people engaging in an orgy of gluttony.

However, on Sunday there was a special offer: 20 CUC (less than £14) for a return coach trip from Santiago to Brisas Sierra Mar (more than 60km away); and a day pass giving you access to all the facilities and food and drink at the hotel. I thought that I would take the chance to see what it was like.

The coastal road between Santiago and the hotel (which is near Chivirico, to the west of Santiago) is beautiful. It runs between the Caribbean Sea on one side and the Sierra Maestra mountain range on the other. In parts the road is in terrible condition, due to damage caused by the 2008 hurricanes, but it is a great drive.

The hotel is very attractive, nestling on a hill top overlooking the sea. It has a couple of swimming pools and a lift to take you down to the beach, where they have a bar and a restaurant. For the more energetically inclined, there is a gym and you can hire bicycles or play tennis. I went for a ride on a bike and made use of the snorkelling equipment that was available. There are also Spanish and salsa lessons.

The hotel guests seemed to be mostly Canadians and a fair number fitted the stereotype of my prejudices. However, to be fair, I engaged in my own orgy of gluttony – it’s hard not to when abundant food and drink is available without having to shop for it, buy it or cook it. You just take it and eat it.

I was very impressed with the hotel, particularly the beach, which was secluded and very tranquil. I would enjoy spending a couple of nights there for a break and a rest. However, more than that would start to drive me crazy, I think. You can, of course, take advantage of the over-priced excursions if you get bored, but being herded around by a tour guide would not appeal much to me either.

There were two coach loads of day trippers from Santiago. I think that I was the only foreigner on them. The rest were Cubans. The 20 CUC price is equivalent to a month’s wages for many Cuban people, but the coaches were full. Clearly, many Cuban people have significant forms of income which enable them to enjoy things such as this (see my earlier post from January entitled “Cost of Living”).

Up until three years ago, Cubans would not have been able to take advantage of deals such as this, as they were banned from entering tourist hotels or resorts. The ban was introduced in the 1990s as part of a crackdown on the prostitution that had grown around the tourist trade. The ban was very unpopular and was often referred to as apartheid by Cuba’s opponents. One of the early acts of Raul Castro when he assumed the presidency was to lift the ban. Not only was this popular, but it opened up a new market for the state-owned Cuban tourist industry (even those hotels with a foreign brand in Cuba, such as Melia or Iberostar, are joint ventures in which the Cuban state owns 51%).

The hotel did seem like a different world from the Cuba in which I have lived for the last eleven weeks, the Cuba of bodegas (ration shops), markets selling potatoes at 1CUP (£0.03) per pound, haircuts at 2 CUP and ice creams at 1 CUP. However, Cuba is a country of many contrasts. The isolated rural communities that we passed on the coach from Santiago are very different from the urban communities of Santiago or Havana; the upmarket parts of those cities (such as Vista Alegre or Miramar) are very different from the poorer parts, such as Distrito Jose Marti or Marianao. The west of the island (including Havana) is very different to the east (where Santiago is situated).

Tourism is an important element of the Cuban economy and a major employer. The recent devaluation of the CUC should see a boost to the Cuban tourist trade. My advice to tourists coming to the island would be to get out of their resorts for a time and explore the rest of this fascinating island.

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