Tuesday, April 3, 2012

all-inclusive Cuba - in the eyes of a Tourism Consultant


I recently returned from a week-long stay at an all inclusive resort in Varadero, Cuba.  All-inclusives really aren’t my preference; I’d rather find a small locally owned hotel and explore my surroundings, try to meet the locals, and come home with a real sense of the place I visited.

In this case I didn’t have that choice, though the alternative still made for a great getaway. I was there for a week of training and workshops with the Canada JKA Karate Federation, and admittedly the price of the all inclusive package was very appealing (and I must admit, so was the beach and the constant sunshine!)

Being a communist country, comparing Cuba to other developed tourism regions isn’t quite like comparing apples to apples. Trade restrictions and government owned resources make for unique circumstances. 

But in many ways Varadero resembles so many of the sun, sand, and s*x destinations that became popular over the past few decades, filled with sprawling all-inclusive resorts owned by the government or large multi-national firms.  And here is where this type of tourism development model deviates from the community-based model promoted by CES.

Yes, the sprawling all-inclusive government owned resorts provide much needed employment for thousands of people, but at what cost?  I found the staff at the resort fell rather neatly into one of two categories: genuinely friendly or completely indifferent. There was no middle-ground of basic customer service that we’re used to here in Canada; the staff – whether gardeners, housekeepers, bartenders, or servers in the restaurant – were either very friendly and interested in chatting, or were expressionless automatons.  Perhaps the result of knowing that no matter how hard they worked they would never be able to ‘own’ a piece of all the wealth around them (in spite of lucrative tips)?

And the town of Varadero has virtually been stripped of its cultural identity and sense of community. A central park, movie theatre, and various cultural meeting places were neglected in favour of a hotel-centred all-inclusive tourism development model, and were ultimately closed.

For millions of international tourists each year, this is just fine. They come for the sun and sand and to buy mass-produced souvenirs, and there really isn’t anything wrong with that. But I wonder if they know what they’re missing? If they had the choice to experience ‘real’ Cuban culture and hang out with the locals, would they? And if they had the choice to support a small family-owned tourism business instead of a large government owned business, would they?

Worldwide research indicates that there continues to be a shift in travellers’ preferences for real, authentic cultural tourism experiences.  But sometimes this requires a bit of education on both sides – locals need to understand that their culture IS of interest and IS something that can be marketed, and tourists need to be made aware that these culturally authentic experiences are available.

To learn more about CES’s Sustainable Community Tourism Development model, Bold Brand marketing strategy, and other services we offer, contact me at jason@cesclients.com, or call toll free 1-877-444-5550.

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