[URBANTH-L] REV: Gustavsen on Colantonio/Potter, Urban Tourism and Development in the Socialist State: Havana ...

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Mon Oct 15 17:16:57 EDT 2007

H-Net Book Review
Published by H-Travel at h-net.msu.edu  (August, 2007)

Andrea Colantonio and Robert B. Potter. Urban Tourism and Development in the 
Socialist State: Havana during the "Special Period". Hampshire: Ashgate 
Publishing, 2006. xii + 256 pp. Illustrations, maps, figures, tables, 
bibliography, index. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-4739-3.

Reviewed by John Gustavsen, Department of History, University of Miami.

Tourism and Transition

Since the tourism industry replaced sugar as the most significant 
contributor to the island's national economy, Cubanists have paid increasing 
attention to tourism and its effect on the Cuban state, economy, and 
society. Urban Tourism and Development in the Socialist State: Havana during 
the 'Special Period', written by Andrea Colantonio and Robert B. Potter, 
adds to this growing body of work. Urban Tourism is more comprehensive than 
most of the material currently being published. Much of the research being 
done on Cuban tourism deals with narrowly defined--but nonetheless 
significant--topics, such as foreign investment, prostitution, health 
tourism, etc. Colantonio and Potter utilize a wide variety of sources as 
they examine "the role, impacts, and planning implications of urban tourism 
in Havana within the new national and local developmental strategy in Cuba" 
(p. 12). In doing so, they illustrate a number of the political, social, 
economic, and environment impacts of this highly significant industry. Their 
work will be useful for individuals interested in contemporary Cuban 
history, tourism and development, and postcommunist transition.

The book has two main arguments. "The first one maintains that 
decentralization and the economic reforms of the 1990s are simply recasting 
vertical models of governance into new forms" (p. 5). The second argument 
contends that within the diverging forces of Cuba's inward-looking socialist 
ideology and market economy tourism, the Cuban government is not 
implementing its plans in a way that will preserve the achievements of the 
revolution. Instead, state officials are basing their decisions on the dire 
economic need that followed the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba's highly 
preferential trading sphere. Furthermore, the authors rightfully stress that 
it is important to recognize "the 'path dependent' nature of post-socialist 
change" (p. 7). Cuba is adjusting to this change differently than countries 
such as Poland, Croatia, and Russia. The high level of centralization that 
has been maintained in the post-Soviet era and the continued U.S. embargo 
are two of the most significant factors influencing Cuba's particular path. 
Along these lines, the authors highlight the work of Allan Williams and 
Vladimir Balaz (2000) illustrating the different paths to tourism 
development in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The introduction and subsequent four chapters comprise part 1. Each helps to 
provide a strong theoretical and historiographical underpinning for the 
ensuing study. Chapter 2 examines some of the ethical dilemmas that can 
arise for Western researchers working in the underdeveloped world. One of 
the authors' main concerns in this context is the transfer of knowledge, or 
in this case, the lack thereof. They argue that the underdeveloped world 
needs to incorporate more of the research results of Western scholarship 
into their respective nations' planning strategies. The authors also outline 
their methodology in this chapter, highlighting their varied source pool 
that includes archival research, interviews, and questionnaires.

Chapter 3, "Tourism Development: The Cuban Context," examines the 
contradictions between tourism development in the underdeveloped world, 
which tends to be decentralized and foreign-dominated, and the system of 
socialist governance in Cuba, one based on centralized planning and national 
sovereignty. The authors examine what the government has done to remedy 
these contradictions, arguing that its goal has become the "implementation 
of an Import-Substitution policy centered on tourism, aiming to reduce the 
country's leakages and economic dependency from external markets" (p. 25). 
Finding balance has been difficult for several reasons, however. During the 
Special Period Cuba's economic needs have been extreme; Cuba did not begin 
to develop the necessary infrastructure to independently maintain the 
tourism industry until the mid-1990s; and foreign partners have tended to 
prefer retaining control of their investments. Thus, while during the 
Special Period tourism has helped Cuba immensely, by creating over 200,000 
jobs and generating 7 percent of the county's GDP by 1999, the authors also 
remind readers that scholars should not cease to see tourism as what keeps 
the developing world's dependence on the West intact.

Chapter 4's goals are twofold. The first is to provide an overview of 
tourism re-development in Havana during the 1990s. The national government 
identified sixty-seven tourist poles throughout the country. Five of these 
are in Havana, and the government has centered urban tourism development on 
them. Still, the steady growth in urban tourism that took place in Havana 
between 1988 and 2002 has not been distributed evenly among the five poles. 
The authors argue that East Havana has benefited the most from this growth. 
The chapter's second goal is to provide readers with a theoretical framework 
for the study of urban tourism. This is done for two reasons--to illustrate 
that varying types of urban tourism development (i.e., cultural, heritage, 
business, etc.) impact cities in different ways, and to link tourism 
planning with urban planning in general. In their view, tourism and other 
urban functions are interdependent.

The general links between tourism planning and urban planning are dealt with 
in chapter 5, yet it does not highlight the particularities of this 
intersection within the context of Havana. Instead, the authors outline the 
variables utilized in their research. This chapter, much like those that 
precede it, is largely theoretical. Like the others, it helps to provide 
readers with the background they need to understand urban tourism in Havana 
during the Special Period as well as the major arguments surrounding its 

Chapters 6 through 9 comprise the book's second part. In "Tourism and Urban 
Development in Havana: From the 'Pseudo-republic' to the Special Period," 
the authors "describe how tourism has historically been a powerful force in 
shaping Havana's urban expansion, with the exception of the revolutionary 
period from 1959 to 1990" (p. 87). They also begin their intense focus on 
the idea that tourism has led to the uneven spatial development of Havana. 
Throughout the rest of the book, they effectively highlight this notion in 
the context of themes such as infrastructural development, economic 
opportunity, and environmental impact.

Despite this uneven development the authors argue, in chapter 7, that the 
effects of tourism on Havana have been generally positive. They do have 
three criticisms though. Doctors, teachers, and other professionals are 
abandoning their jobs for work in tourism. The state's failure to employ 
large numbers of people has led to increased crime and prostitution. 
Finally, the economic benefits have been limited to the city's tourism 
poles. To justify their criticisms, the authors cite a number of examples 
based on statistical information and several interviews with residents. They 
also note that in light of this tourism-based social change, new actors and 
interest groups have arisen in Havana, in some cases, in direct opposition 
to Cuba's system of highly centralized planning. Thus, the authors 
illustrate that tourism may provide the fertile ground necessary for 
institutional change to take root in Cuba.

Chapter 8 deals with the environmental consequences of tourism on Havana 
during the Special Period. The consequences have been tempered by two 
conflicting trends. The Cuban government promotes "sustainable development," 
yet its hunger for foreign currency "has increased the pressure to 
marginalize environmental protection" (p. 138). The authors outline the 
institutions and legislation designed during the Special Period to regulate 
the environmental impact of tourism on Havana. They focus on topics such as 
the city's water, sewerage, and drainage systems, road networks, and 
pollution levels, arguing that in terms of infrastructure, tourism has had 
both positive and negative impacts on the city.

Chapter 9 is perhaps the book's most interesting. It examines how residents 
perceive tourism's influence on Havana. The authors base their conclusions 
on 160 questionnaires that they divided equally between the neighborhoods of 
Old Havana, Vedado, Montebarreto, and East Havana. The questionnaires gave 
the authors an opportunity to test the validity of their claims regarding 
tourism in the capital. In almost every instance, residents' perceptions 
reinforced the authors' aforementioned assertions. The authors argued that 
one of tourism's main benefits is the economic opportunity it provides. In 
fact, 70 percent of respondents to the questionnaire saw tourism's main 
benefits as economic in nature. Unsurprisingly, the responses also 
reinforced the authors' focus on Havana's growing spatial divide. Similarly, 
when the authors were unable to assess whether infrastructural or 
environmental improvements in the capital have been a result of tourism or 
non-tourism-related initiatives, residents were equally unable to do so. The 
authors also incorporated several personal interviews into the chapter. The 
interviews reinforce the conclusions drawn from the questionnaires, 
complementing them quite well and improving the chapter's readability.

Chapters 10 and 11 comprise part 3. This section examines tourism's impact 
on policy-making in Havana and offers some concluding thoughts about Cuba's 
future. Government efforts to decentralize tourism planning have frequently 
met with mixed results. As the authors demonstrate, this has been the case 
with many of Cuba's state-sponsored tourism initiatives. They argue that the 
creation of seven new ministries could possibly serve as a step towards the 
extension of decision-making power to Cuban communities. Even though foreign 
investors seeking to operate in Cuba must obtain a license from one of these 
new ministries--the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment 
(CITMA)--the economic strife brought on by the Special Period and 
concomitant shift from medium- and long-term to short-term planning, has led 
to the use of weak licensing standards in some instances. Thus, it remains 
to be seen whether or not these supposedly independent governing bodies will 
be permitted, or even willing, to act in ways that could potentially subvert 
the national economy. If they are not, it is unlikely that decision-making 
power will be extended to individual Cubans. As the authors note, the 
formation of civic groups in Cuba is still forbidden. Once again, the 
authors locate their discussion within the ongoing debate regarding these 
institutional changes, highlighting the varied conclusions drawn by scholars 
including John Brohman (1996, 1997), Marifelli Perez-Stable (1997), and 
Mauicio Font (1997).

It is clear that the authors are well versed in the most pertinent issues 
relating to the impacts and development of urban tourism in Cuba, and 
particularly in Havana, during the Special Period. Still, certain ideas 
could have been developed further. They suggest that Western analyses of the 
underdeveloped world--particularly in the context of tourism 
development--could provide useful to information planners in developing 
nations. Nevertheless, they do not offer suggestions as to precisely how 
their work might be incorporated into Cuban planning. In the authors' 
defense, though, the insular Cuban government may not be interested in the 
recommendations of foreign academics anyway.

Furthermore, on a more minor note, the authors err in their assertion that 
taxis specifically designated for Cubans avoid picking up tourists because 
they face high fines. I have spent roughly five months in Cuba, and I have 
had no trouble getting a machina (the Cuban word for these taxis that the 
authors do not acknowledge) to pick me up. My own research on Cuban tourism 
has also led me into countless conversations with foreign tourists. Most 
tourists do not understand that machinas run fixed routes around the city. 
Thus, if you ask a driver to go somewhere not on his or her route, they will 
rarely offer you a ride. The fixed machina rate for Cubans is normally ten 
pesos nacional ($U.S. 0.45), but some drivers attempt to charge foreign 
tourists a higher rate--anywhere from twenty to forty pesos nacional. While 
this fee is still often better than one would pay in a state-owned tourist 
taxi, the seemingly arbitrary price structuring causes some tourists to 
avoid using machinas. Other tourists are merely intimidated by the fact that 
many machina drivers do not speak a language other than Spanish. While this 
example is neither a glaring error nor a reflection of carelessness on the 
authors' part, it does illustrate a dilemma for scholars of tourism. The 
industry is all-encompassing, and one would likely need professional 
training in multiple fields to fully understand all of its complexities. 
Thus, for broad studies of the tourism industry, inclusion will always come 
at the risk of oversimplification.

While the authors proclaim their book to be one of the most comprehensive 
works dealing with tourism in Cuba (and in fact it is), they also 
acknowledge its limits. Two of these are evident within the book's title. 
Colantonio and Potter's focus on urban tourism neglects to address the 
growing levels of rural tourism on the island, particularly in Vinales and 
the Sierra Maestra. It also excludes the resort-based tourism that is so 
prevalent in areas such as Varadero and Cayo Coco. Along similar lines, 
their concentration on urban tourism in Havana ignores the other important 
cities within Cuba's tourist world, for example, Santiago de Cuba, Santa 
Clara, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos.

Despite these and several other minor criticisms, this is an extremely 
useful book. It should be compulsory reading for students of Cuban tourism, 
although individuals who are already quite familiar with the topic may find 
themselves yearning for more. This is partly a result of the responsible 
limits self-imposed by the authors. Nevertheless, their analysis of the 
changes that have taken place in Havana during the Special Period as a 
result of tourism is fascinating. As the book concludes, they also 
illustrate the major role that tourism and the institutional changes that 
have accompanied it will likely play as Cuban society braces itself for 
change in the looming post-Castro era. Thus, the book becomes a tool for not 
only those interested in Cuba's past, but the island's future as well.

Citation: John Gustavsen. "Review of Andrea Colantonio and Robert B. Potter, 
Urban Tourism and Development in the Socialist State: Havana during the 
"Special Period"," H-Travel, H-Net Reviews, July, 2007. URL: 

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