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So You Want to Visit Cuba 'Before It’s Ruined’?

by Tomas Bilbao, Managing Director

Since President Obama expanded authorized travel to Cuba a little over a year ago, U.S. travel to the island has increased by over 77 percent. Many of the approved travel providers that operate people-to-people trips have designed a variety of tours that highlight the country’s rich culture, history and people. With the increased travel, it has become routine to hear from friends, coworkers and neighbors who have visited and are eager to share their impressions. What has also become common is the all-too-often repeated phrase: “I want(ed) to go before Cuba is ruined.” This view ignores the very real possibility that many of the qualities that make Cuba such a special destination can be maintained and even enhanced through sustainable development.

This phrase implies that with time, Cuba will lose its “charm.” This may partially be due to the fact that as more Americans visit the island and the tourist travel ban is finally lifted, photos of a trip to Cuba posted on Facebook will become as commonplace as other Caribbean vacation destinations. The allure of visiting the once-prohibited Island will eventually wear off and with it the appeal the Island as an adventure travel destination. But that is only part of the story.

The other reason why some want to “visit Cuba before it’s ruined,” is because they expect that the “charm” of crumbling facades, cheap rum and cigars, old American cars and low prices won’t survive a transition toward a more open economic system. Some fear that as Cuba attracts foreign investment and continues reforming its economy, development and economic growth will fundamentally change what makes Cuba alluring. While it is possible that most people who hold this view do so with the best of intentions — wanting to preserve Cuba’s unique culture and heritage — implicit in this statement are two sad and patronizing assumptions: first, that economic growth, development and increased prosperity for the Cuban people are somehow undesirable and will hurt Cuba’s appeal to tourists; and second, that Cuba will ignore the need to preserve its own culture and heritage.

This notion that economic development will bring ruin deserves more thoughtfulness. After all, we can all agree that the crumbling façades that many find charming are the homes of one, sometimes several, families whose safety and well-being should not be compromised for the sake of “charm.” The old American cars on Cuba roads are beautiful and a testament to the ingenuity of Cuban mechanics, but also to the result of poor economic policies and a U.S. embargo that has more than its share of blame. And the low prices, cheap rum and cigars, are more a reflection of the $20 average monthly salary of Cubans than of a market flooded with cheap goods.

Cuba’s process of economic reforms has created over half a million entrepreneurs, many of whom are in the service sector related to tourism. Tourists, who book their Cuban stays on Airbnb guaranteeing a much more authentic experience, are able to do so thanks to the economic opening they so fear. The best meals tourists will eat are served at the country’s paladares — private restaurants operated by entrepreneurs. So while many fear how economic development may ruin their authentic experience, they are unwittingly enjoying its fruits. Just imagine what will be possible when private Cuban entrepreneurs are able to own and operate their own hotels, franchises and tour operators.

More than anyone, Cuba has an interest in preserving its unique culture and heritage as it develops. Since tourism is one the country’s most important industries, maintaining Cuba’s attractiveness as a Caribbean destination will remain a top economic priority. But, Cuba already is a leader in conservation. It is home to nine UNESCO world heritage sites and has protected approximately 20 percent of its territory and waters. The efforts of the Historian of Havana to preserve and revitalize Old Havana are an example of how preservation can be done in coordination with, and to support, economic development. Chapter XV of Cuba’s foreign investment law establishes that foreign investment must respect and contribute to the country’s sustainable development, environmental conservation efforts and the responsible use of natural resources. Foreign investors should proactively prioritize these conservation, preservation and environmental protection efforts.

As U.S. companies look toward opportunities in Cuba, they must understand the complicated legacy of U.S. investment on the Island and seek to play a constructive role. Doing so will not only help protect and enhance their brands’ reputations given the increased scrutiny from regulators, activists and the media, but will also protect their investments. Given years of economic stagnation and U.S. sanctions, there are many opportunities for investors to play a constructive role in Cuba. Understanding Cuba’s priorities, and leveraging their company’s experience, knowledge and resources, can contribute to and build on Cuba’s existing conservation and preservation efforts. This will provide a net social return that benefits the Cuban people, but also an economic return by ensuring Cuba’s attractiveness as a prized destination is not only preserved, but also enhanced.

Economic development and an increase in the quality of life for ordinary Cubans don’t have to mean the erosion of Cuba’s allure. Other countries have found ways to harmonize the two. Costa Rica has built a successful tourism industry by investing in environmental preservation. Cuba not only has the advantage of perspective, but also a track record of historic preservation, cultural investment and environmental protection. Rather than fear how foreign investment and economic development will make Cuba less “charming,” skeptics should understand how, if done properly, sustainable development can make Cuba a more prosperous and attractive destination.

Tomas Bilbao is Managing Director of Avila Strategies LLC (www.AvilaStrategies.com). Bilbao is is an advisor of the Policy Council of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing American businesses and non-profit groups to support the ongoing U.S.‐Cuba normalization process.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series that is revisiting the topic of U.S.-Cuba relations, one year after the thaw in the long-standing tension between two Western Hemisphere foes. The series, produced in partnership with Engage Cuba — a bipartisan organization working to end the Cuban embargo and normalize U.S.-Cuba relations — will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

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