HAVANA - German tourist Florian Riedel and his American wife sat in a popular Old Havana restaurant the other night for what was billed as a Buena Vista Social Club musical spectacular.
“Aren’t they all dead?” Riedel asked of the aged Cuban musicians who resurrected dormant careers with the hit 1997 Buena Vista Social Club documentary. “Who are these guys?”
Riedel, a resort worker in the Bahamas, got up from his table to ask a bartender, who insisted that most of the original Buena Vista stars were present. Actually, five key members of the group died over the last four years. On this night, only 24-year-old percussionist Julienne Oviedo remained from the cast of the original soundtrack. Wearing a t-shirt, baggy jeans and red baseball cap, he resembled a reggaeton artist.
“People come from all over the world looking for the Buena Vista originals,” said Oviedo, who was part of the original soundtrack recording as a teenager.
Tourism is the communist nation’s leading source of income, generating more than $2 billion a year. Last year, however, the number of visitors to the island dropped by about 100,000 to 2.2 million, far short of plans to reach 2.5 million foreign tourists, the weekly magazine Bohemia reported earlier this month.
The government plans to spend about $185 million over the next three years to upgrade more than 200 resorts, golf courses, marinas and other facilities. Tourism workers, however, joke that Cuba’s government is counting on the popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club to save the revolution. (In Old Havana alone, there are three $50-a-head Buena Vista shows each week.)
Government officials attribute the decline somewhat to higher airfares because of rising fuel costs and hurricane threats, but mostly to U.S. restrictions on travel to the island, including tighter restrictions that limit family visits to once every three years. The number of Cuban-Americans visiting the island has dropped from 100,000 in 2004 to about 30,000 each year since.
But many international travelers complain that Cuba has become too expensive, particularly because of a tax required on currency exchanges. For instance, the government automatically takes 20 percent on all dollar exchanges.
“We know that Canadian tour operators have complained about costs in Cuba,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert and vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va. “Places like the Dominican Republic are much more competitive. Others in the business have complained that refueling costs for planes in Cuba are much, much higher than in other places.”
Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe said the subject of tourism had virtually disappeared from the state-controlled media and this reflected the ambivalence of some ranking government officials toward travel to the island.
“Tourism has been given the priority that it had in the past,” he said. “There is a sector in the Cuban government that views tourism as a very serious political threat to its absolute power.”
Attempts to reach Cuban tourism minister Manuel Marrero were unsuccessful. But his agency’s plans to deal with the decline were outlined this month in Opciones, a state-run newspaper for foreign investors.
About $162 million will go to upgrade high-end facilities such as golf courses, yacht clubs and theme parks, the newspaper reported. Other funds will be used to build 50 boutique hotels around the country and to improve the island’s crumbling highways. The improvements also include plans to improve airports in Havana and four other cities.
“Cuba is recognizing that it’s become a high-cost destination and they’re trying to do some things to address this,” Peters said. “Clearly for the Americans, it is the worst of all. With the currency change, it means at the airport you lose 20 percent of your money.”
But Americans aren’t the only ones complaining.
“A flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Cuba costs $1000,” said Christy White, a 23-year-old university student from Canada. “You can get an all inclusive to Cancun, Mexico for $1200. If I go into a restaurant in Cuba, I always ask how much everything cost. As a foreigner, I feel like I’m always being taken advantage of.”