Cuba tourism: Why we shouldn't celebrate a country's decay

If you love to travel then I guarantee you've seen these images. You've seen them all over your social media feeds: on your friends' accounts, on other travellers' accounts, even from respected disseminators like Nat Geo.

They're iconic images of Cuba, photos of vintage American cars trundling along crumbling streets, snaps of the faded glory of Havana's old facades, of smiling Cubans eking out a living and looking as if they couldn't be happier doing it.

Travellers love to celebrate this imagery. We love the vintage aesthetic of Cuba (it looks great on Instagram). We love the romance of visiting this country and stepping back in time into the 1950s. We love the knowledge that we could ride in those cars and stroll those streets and feel what it felt like to be alive back in those days.

Tourists have been flocking to Cuba in the last five or six years to see it before it "changes", before the Castro era draws to a close, before communism's inevitable fall, before relations with the US improve and the island begins to flourish and to resemble all of the other islands of the Caribbean, with all the benefits and drawbacks that democracy and modernisation would bring.

Those things probably should have happened already, but, of course, Donald Trump. Still, that's beside the point.

The thing is that travellers love to celebrate Cuba's decay, to treat its shabby buildings and its old cars as a thing to promote and to cherish, in the same way we talk glowingly about, say, the gritty realism of Rio de Janeiro favelas, or the "happy people with nothing" stereotypes in Laos or Cambodia.

But it's wrong. It's wrong to celebrate decay. It's wrong to cherish poverty as a tourist attraction. It's wrong to wish that things in these places would stay the same for your viewing pleasure.

Think about those cars in Cuba. Cubans don't drive 1950s Chevrolets, Buicks, Dodges and Cadillacs because of their deep passion for classic American vehicles. They drive them out of necessity.

They drive them because to buy a new European car in Cuba – something as simple as a Peugeot hatchback – will cost more than $100,000. That's about eight years' salary for the average Cuban (and the equivalent of Australians paying about $650,000 for a new Corolla).


It's far cheaper in Cuba to tinker with an old car than to buy a few one. It's cheaper to completely replace the engine of a 50s Chevy and keep the old chassis. It's better for business, too, as tourists love riding in the old cars they've seen in all those photos. No one goes to Cuba to ride around in a 2017 Peugeot.

And what of Cuba itself? Havana – glorious, stunning Havana – is in an absolute state. Once grand buildings are in disrepair. Paint is peeling. Old, 60s-style signage is falling off its hinges. There's beauty in this decay, for sure – but it's beauty in our eyes, in the eyes of people who visit Cuba as a tourist attraction, rather than live there for life.

It's great to go to Cuba and see this place with your own eyes, to talk to people and hear about the history and the present from those who've lived it from the "other side". But it's not good to then celebrate the ruin of the country, the struggle it takes for people there to survive.

The tour guide I had in Cuba last time I was there was a qualified professor of English at a local university, who was forced to work in tourism, to spend weeks at a time on tour away from this family, because that's where the money is in this country. That's how you get ahead. And he was one of the lucky ones.

Travellers have to be so careful not to romanticise struggle, not to see the world in terms of what makes great photos, what makes us feel good, what makes us wonder.

Rio favelas are fascinating – but they're borne of struggle. Rice farmers in South-East Asia might give you a cheery smile and maybe even offer to share some food, but they'd probably like access to first-world medical facilities as well. This is the modern-day "noble savage", and it doesn't sit well.

As with Cuba, that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit. Quite the opposite. Tourist dollars inject wealth. Meeting people from different circumstances promotes understanding and empathy.

But don't celebrate poverty and poor fortune. Don't romanticise struggle. And don't take those iconic images on face value.

Do you think it's wrong to celebrate the old cars and the urban decay of Cuba? Is this something travellers tend to do? Are there other countries or people that deserve more thought?



See also: 'Begpacking' and 11 other travel trends that need to die in 2018

See also: First time to Cuba: 10 things you need to know

LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the podcast

To subscribe to the podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.