Responsible Travel in Cuba

I am sharing some lessons about responsible travel in Cuba that I have learned in honour of Responsible Travel Week 2015, both as an expat and a traveller.
I recently experienced some challenges while trying to travel responsibly in Cuba and will use it as a case study to illustrate some ways to practice responsible tourism below.

First, what is Responsible Travel?

According to the International Centre for Responsible Tourism “responsible tourism is about making ‘better places for people to live, and better places for people to visit'”.  I also wrote a long, detailed guide to practicing responsible tourism.

Whenever possible, travellers should aim to leave a place the same or even better than they found it. However, since we are only visitors to a place it can be difficult to know what to do to achieve that.

1) Learn Something About Where You’re Going

I recently travelled to Cuba to escape our frigid winter as many Canadians do. While there, I discovered it provides an important case study for a post for Responsible Travel Week. Prior to going, I looked for advice online and asked some people who had already been there. The overwhelming advice that I got from people was: “Bring gifts for the locals.”

My initial instinct when people said that was to be skeptical, but before you call me a grinch it’s because many charitable organizations discourage giving gifts in kind for a number of reasons, and also because Cuba’s socio-economic context is nowhere close to some of the places I’ve lived or travelled to.

Sunset in Cuba
It also had some of the nicest sunsets.

First, Cubans enjoy a high standard of living. According to the UN Human Development Index, Cuba is considered to have very high human development, the same ranking as Canada, the US, most of Europe and Australia.

While they may not experience the excess of wealth that most of us do in the West, they have good health care, a high literacy rate and the government provides modest housing and a basic salary. The Embargo makes certain important consumer goods and medicine hard to come by at times, but they are not in as dire straights as their Caribbean neighbour Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and considered to have low human development.

So while Cubans may appreciate the gifts that they receive from tourists, the argument can be made that charity is much more desperately needed elsewhere. As someone who has been to some of the poorest countries in the world, what I took away from Cuba is that despite humble appearances, Cubans seem to live extremely well compared to people in many other nations.

2) Practice the Golden Rule

When visiting somewhere new, practice the Golden Rule wherever you can. That means if you wouldn’t like someone yelling at you over a $2 plate of food, then try to keep your interactions with locals as amicable as possible.

As for the children, this is where it gets complicated for me. Kids love to run up to travellers and ask for things, or just goof around and it can be fun for both sides. Many people have told me to take pens to Africa to hand out the children, or gifts to Cuba  to leave for the maid but these interactions can be dangerous.

Before you give anything to a child you meet in a foreign country, ask yourself if you would want your own children running up to strangers on the street and accepting things from them. Chances are you wouldn’t want that, so it’s not right to encourage other people’s kids to do the same. It creates a dangerous habit, and child sex tourism is a very real and awful thing. Instead, understand that interacting with you is a game for them, and they will be happy to receive just a smile and a wave from you.

Little Girl Waving in Cuba
This little girl was happy to wave and get a wave back

If you leave gifts behind for adults as it was suggested I do in Cuba, make sure it’s with someone you know and have a relationship with. Leaving things behind in your hotel room may result in a maid being accused of stealing for example. Handing them out to someone you met casually may result in your thoughtful gift being sold or traded for something that person finds more useful. That being said, some people still recommend bringing things like toilet paper, toothbrushes and personal hygiene products since they may make it back to the people who really need it (ie: not your maid) through the black market.

3) Whatever you do, Don’t Throw Your Junk from a Moving Train

This should be obvious, but if you do decide to hand out gifts to locals in Cuba, for the love of everything holy, don’t throw them from a moving train. I actually saw this happen while on a sugar cane tour.

From Varadero you can take a trip to a sugar plantation and ride an old steam train. The tour goes through the small city of Cartegna, where a lot of the workers who work in the resorts live and then carries on to a sugar cane plantation where someone demonstrates how sugar cane is harvested by hand. From there, the tour continues to an old mill that is non-operational, but open as a museum and finishes with a ride on the steam train back to the plantation.

Responsible Travel in Cuba - Sugar Cane Harvesting Tour
Sugar cane harvest demonstration

Along the way, the guide explained that parents children come to see the train. Some are happy to watch it go by and wave because trains are awesome, and I recall the joy I used to get from waving at trains as a kid. The guide specifically said not to throw gifts to the people waiting by the tracks, saying that it was dangerous and that there had been accidents in the past. Chew on that for a second. Is the satisfaction that you may get from throwing a notebook to a poor, but not really all that poor person in Cuba, worth the welfare of a child?

Throwing Gifts out a Train in Cuba -1
“My life changed the day a gringo threw a pen at me from a train.” Said no one ever.
Throwing Gifts out a Train in Cuba
Could they not see how this could be dangerous?

Instead, the guide asked that you simply wave to them. Some people in the group decided not to listen and began throwing notebooks and pens to the kids who started chasing the train. They came dangerously close to a moving vehicle all for some cheap gifts that will never change anyone’s life. More likely than not, the things they picked up by the train were sold or traded elsewhere. And once again, would you want your own children chasing a moving train? To bring it home, as we pulled into the station, one of the kids chasing the train for some gum that the bad group was throwing slipped off the platform toward the wheel of the train. Luckily one of his friends was able to grab him and pull him back and he wasn’t hurt.

4) Consider Your Impact

Will flinging cheap plastic junk that you bought at Walmart before leaving Canada from a train change anyone’s life? No. But every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet today and will take millions of years to decompose. Although Cuba has much better waste removal infrastructure than many places I have travelled to, it doesn’t escape having piles of plastic waste on the side of the road. That means if you leave some cheap plastic toy in Cuba, it will likely be there forever. In this light, it’s better to not buy the toy at all.

Responsible Travel in Cuba - Plastic is Forever
Plastic is forever

If you’re thinking of going SCUBA diving or snorkelling in one of Cuba’s amazing reefs, make sure that your sunscreen is free of co-polymers which actually bind to the coral and kill it. Since they may burn their garbage, it’s best not to bring aerosols which explode when burned, and if you do bring them, pack them out with you.

Diving in the Bay of Pigs, Cuba
Doing my best to stay pale without harming the reef in the Bay of Bigs

Wherever possible, support conservation initiatives. Often times the fees you pay to access a nature park or historic site, contribute to its maintenance so it’s a good way to leave the place better than you found it.

reserva ecologica near Varadero
The 5 CUC admission at the reserva ecologica near Varadero is put toward conserving the mangrove.

4) Spread Your Wealth Around

So what is a caring traveller to do? Being charitable is a wonderful quality, but charity is only best when it’s done right. So avoid interactions where you encourage children to run up to you or chase moving trains. Instead, do a few minutes research and reach out to local charities who will have a much better pulse on what the community actually needs and how to deliver it effectively.

Understand too that leaving the resort and going into town to spend money in the shops and restaurants is an equally important way to give back to the community that is hosting you.

Finally, when in doubt, cash donations to registered charities that support the local community or conservation efforts are most often the best way to get at the first, and most important aspect of responsible tourism which is “making better places for people to live.”

I hope that this post provided some food for thought during Responsible Travel Week 2015 and beyond. If you have some more learnings or advice to share on how to travel responsibly, especially in Cuba, please leave a comment below.

Looking for more on Cuba?  Check out this great itinerary for a week in Cuba.

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