Communist Cuba once relied on the Soviet Union for its food, cars, oil and, of course, missiles. Now, as relations with Moscow warm up again, the island is angling for a new Russian export: tourists.
It’s offering them a glimpse of a society that some Russians view with nostalgia.
When Russian tourists land in Havana, says translator Anice Rubio, they often start to cry. Not because they have been sitting on a plane for 12 hours, but because they are so sentimental about the Soviet Union’s old Caribbean ally.
When they arrive at the airport, Rubio says, they often begin to sing: “Cuba, you are my love, you are like the red color.”
Rubio grew up mostly in Moscow, but her parents are Cuban. She has been working in Cuba’s tourism industry since the early 1990s, and this year, the number of Russian visitors is expected to grow to an all-time high, with two direct flights added from Moscow and St. Petersburg.
At a recent trade fair in Havana, Russia was the guest of honor. Held on the grounds of an 18th-century Spanish colonial fortress overlooking the city, the fair featured live Russian folk music and free shots of Stolichnaya vodka. Travel posters on the wall promoting Siberian forests and Russian snowboarding looked a little out of place on a tropical island that restricts its own citizens from traveling, just as the Soviets once did.
Anna Martynova, an official with Russia’s Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy, says the number of Russian visitors to Cuba is projected to grow this year to 45,000 from 30,000 in 2009.
“Frankly, Cuba doesn’t have shopping. Cuba doesn’t have … five-star, all-inclusives and everything. But Cuba offers a different thing,” Martynova says.
Tourism companies in both countries are targeting Russians who like a little socialist melancholy with their sun and sand. Martynova says Russians want to experience a part of their own history that’s still a bit unsettled.
“In a way, because there [are] not so many Russians who are nostalgic for the socialist stuff, but they just want to get a glimpse maybe from times long past and feel something inside, some bittersweet stuff,” Martynova says.
U.S. travel restrictions still limit the number of American visitors. But those who do come often remark on the 1950s nostalgia of seeing old Chevrolets still cruising the streets of Havana, and classic hotels once favored by American mobsters.
The phenomenon is similar for Russians.
For some Russians, it’s the sight of familiar Cuban products they remember from childhood, or the uniforms of smiling Cuban schoolchildren identifying them as communist “pioneers.” Other elements, such as Cuba’s ration-card system, aren’t such fond memories.
Russian tourist Alexander Gureev, a bear-shaped saxophone player, says that as a child he studied the history of the Soviet Union and learned about its ally, Cuba.
“Now, I can look by myself, and it’s a great pleasure for me,” he says.
Flush-faced and sweating heavily in the tropical heat, Gureev had only been in the country for four days, but he says Cuba didn’t seem nearly as grim as the Soviet system he was born into.
It’s a warm place, near the United States, Gureev noted: “It’s a good place for a fantastic rest.”
Another visitor from Moscow says it’s not that Russians want to go back to their Soviet system. But she says her compatriots now seem so consumed with earning money that there is little time for anything else. In Cuba, that is definitely not a problem.