Cuba is not your next travel destination

This week, the first commercial flight from the United States landed in Cuba. Currently, 10 U.S. airlines have been approved to operate commercial flights to Cuba, and Carnival Cruise Line began sailing to Cuba in May. Media outlets have been reporting heavily on the country, but what concerns me about many of these articles is the way they market tourism to Cuba, with stories explaining how Americans are testing limits by traveling to "forbidden areas" or "forbidden lands." "These People Are Cooler Than You Because They've Already been to Cuba," the headline read. A few months ago, the Kardashians flew to Cuba, and their trip illustrates how tourism can quickly objectify a country.

It's a historic moment, of course, and worth celebrating—but as people start packing their bags and waiting for Cuba's tourism industry to fully open up, it's important to remember that this country is more than just a new vacation spot for people to indulge in. Crazy nights and boozy beach days.

People like me who have been to Cuba often lament how glad they were that they could have visited Cuba before U.S. tourism “ruined it.” I saw comments on Facebook from friends and colleagues who said they wanted to visit the country before the big hotels and other businesses demolished the ornate buildings and all the old cars disappeared. What these people forget is that since the 1960s, Cuba has been open to tourists from all countries except the United States—and Americans cannot single-handedly determine Cuba’s future. It was this mentality that drove the Cuban revolution; the country had become a tourist playground of abuse and neglect of its own citizens. Well done, America - you're ready for round two.

Cuba is more than just a tourist destination, its historic architecture is worthy of photos and Instagrams. Before people start booking cruise tickets, it's important to remember that the Cuban people may not benefit from your spending as much as you think - large overseas companies will buy land for hotels and their businesses will be catering to tourism industry rather than tourism. Business dedicated to sustaining the lives of the Cuban people.

For many Cubans, one of the main motivations for joining the entrepreneurial sector is the promise of higher incomes compared to low-wage national jobs. These low-wage government jobs are not menial—these are professors, doctors, and lawyers. Even though there are people who are thriving in their own private businesses, it's still extremely difficult. Many products are difficult to find in Cuba, and finding the ingredients to run private restaurants at home, called paladars, may mean turning to the black market.

Americans cannot decide Cuba's future alone. It was this mentality that drove the Cuban revolution; the country had become a tourist playground of abuse and neglect of its own citizens. Well done, America - you're ready for round two.

One night when I was studying abroad in Cuba in 2015, the owner of the B&B where our class stayed came to have dinner with us. We chatted for hours at a giant square table, asking about her business, joking about classmates losing miserably at dominoes, and even discussing some sensitive topics like race and money. At the end of the conversation she said in broken English that she was glad we were staying at her home and that we were her favorite people to host. She told us how she would do everything she could to make our stay as pleasant as possible, and mentioned that she even declined her daughter's request for eggs that morning because she had run out of food that week.

"I told her I needed them for breakfast for all of you," she said with a smile. My stomach sank at that moment and I wished I could give back the second helping of eggs I had that morning. (Cuba’s food shortages are due in part to the country’s reliance on imports for about 60% of its domestic food needs, which ironically lacks the resources to produce fruits and vegetables on its own fertile soil. Most imported products are too much for $20 Expensive - a month's salary for many Cubans).

It's also ironic that many Cubans don't even have access to certain Cuban tourist areas. As my class drove to the seaside town of Matanzas, we were greeted by a toll booth. My professor explained that the purpose of these booths was to check passports to see if people were Cuban—Cubans were not allowed on the resort beach unless they paid a fee to enter, a fee that would take up a large portion of their monthly salary. The tour bus we were on then turned into a huge gated town filled with restaurants, shops and hotel buildings. The only Cubans at the resort were the workers who provided food, lifeguards and secretly sold cigars to make some extra money.

Now, this is not to say that all Cubans are suffering and deserve sympathy. They have an amazing education system, everything from education to PhD is free, and they have one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Their prisons also treat prisoners more humanely than American prisons.

While some speak of the hopes and opportunities that opening up private tourism brings, it is important to remember that restrictions on people’s freedoms and inequalities remain. It is a country full of contradictions: a friend I made in Cuba told me that she did not want to see Cuba become a capitalist country like the United States. She also recently took a second job as a travel translator to make more money.

So, yes, tourism is helping the Cuban economy, but it is important not to exploit the Cuban people and call it help. For those planning to go down, don't just go to a resort and sit on a beach chair drinking mojitos all day. Don't stay in new hotels opened by people from other countries, they will only use Cubans as service staff. Instead, find a local who owns a bed and breakfast and is trying to make a living for themselves. Understand how your actions as a tourist affect other people's lives, but also realize that the idea of ​​Cuban culture being "ruined" by American tourists is a fundamentally self-centered ideology.