Written by 3:53 pm Travel

Free tour guides in Cuba: to be or to not be? (II)

When the coronavirus pandemic left José Enrique González Calvo practically and not using a job as a guide, he didn’t hesitate to direct his gaze to the digital universe. This 24-year-old from Havana, whom everyone knows as Pepe, had until then among the best free tours of the Cuban capital on GuruWalk, the leading platform for the sort of tourism, wherein clients don’t pay prematurely, but reasonably give a type of tip at the tip of the tour, based on their satisfaction.

The intention of the young man, whom we already met in the primary a part of this work, was to supply his services online, to stay lively, even virtually, in a task that—in accordance with OnCuba—he’s keen about, and, in fact, receiving for it monetary retribution that might allow him to get well his funds, diminished in the course of the pandemic. But then he bumped into technological and operational limitations he didn’t count on, a few of them a consequence of the U.S. embargo on the island.

“For instance, through Airbnb, there’s an option of online experiences, just as they’ve them live,” they don’t call them tours, he commented, “and customers can book them at a particular time in order that one can explain the subject they propose, and in principle every part is advantageous. The issue is that Airbnb uses the Zoom program for these experiences, and that’s complicated since it is blocked for Cuba,” explains Pepe to OnCuba. “Also, although I could use a VPN, Web consumption is way higher that way, and I don’t have the Nauta Hogar home web service; I might must use mobile data, and subsequently the expense may be very high and it doesn’t add up, it’s not value it. I suppose that’s why amongst Airbnb’s online experiences there aren’t any on Cuba, due to the blockade.” 

This is just not the one technological obstacle consequently of the embargo referred to by Pepe. The young man—whose free tour is centered on the history and present of the Cuban Revolution—has explored other paths, has connected with other guides, has interacted directly with the GuruWalk team looking for solutions, but, within the long or short run, he has again chanced on the identical stone. The unavailability for the island of PayPal, the leading American company in online payments, utilized by lots of his potential clients, is just not a mirage for him and for a lot of more Cubans who could receive money this manner and be rewarded without setbacks for his or her job. And although there are “shortcuts” and alternatives, who knows where they could find one other stumbling block.

Even so, Pepe has not stopped trying, dreaming.

“My idea is to publish a web-based tour. I could do it through a Telegram room, or a video call on Telegram or WhatsApp, where it includes as much as eight people, and I can put a link to an electronic wallet, where customers leave me whatever they consider. I actually have even proposed to GuruWalk to create a correct platform for online tours, which I believe can be convenient for it in the long run since the pandemic itself has favored the sort of service,” he explains.

“Perhaps there’s someone who doesn’t have all the cash or the time to travel to Cuba, but can book a tour online. Then, he could connect with me, so I can confer with him about my topic, and in the long run it continues to be a free tour, because that person would pay me online what he thinks is fair,” he adds. “But that’s just an idea, a proposal, because until now in practice I actually have not found an easy alternative to the live tours that I actually have at all times done.”

Screenshot of the free tour of José Enrique González, Pepe, on the GuruWalk platform.

Trump slams brake 

Beyond his most up-to-date personal experience, Pepe cannot fail to acknowledge the impact of U.S. sanctions on tourism in Cuba. Particularly, those implemented by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which, in his opinion, have been “terrible” for individuals who work on this sector and, particularly, for those like him who work privately.

“After I began working as a guide, we were already in 2018 and the Trump administration’s sanctions were more and stronger in relation to travel,” he recalls. “I remember the messages that some travelers who had already booked my tour sent me saying they were canceling because their cruise line had told them that they might not travel to Cuba. And since that cruise ban got here into force, I’ve surely lost the chance to produce other reservations from the USA, which, even though it was not my largest market—they got more bookings from Spain and Latin America—those measures undoubtedly affected me.”

“But not only me,” he adds, “many individuals have also been greatly affected by these measures. Many of the rental houses in Cuba, for instance, are on Airbnb, and the system that this company had begun to make use of to pay Cuban hosts, through AIS cards, can not be used as a result of the Trump sanctions on Fincimex. Also, with travel restrictions, bookings for rental houses dropped dramatically; many taxi drivers and drivers who moved almost exclusively Americans were left without work; many restaurants, which were created due to the cruise boom, even with American food, needed to close. So it has been terrible for those of us who work in tourism, and I believe Trump imposed those sanctions knowing well what he was doing, and that he desired to help the people was just lip service.”

Roxana Capote, from Cienfuegos, portrays an analogous situation. This young woman, who like Pepe promotes a free tour on the GuruWalk platform—focused, in her case, on the culture and traditions of town of Cienfuegos—confirms to OnCuba that “before Trump’s measures there was plenty of U.S. tourism in Cuba, rather a lot, and lots of people benefited from that.”

“Although at the moment I didn’t work directly as a guide, I used to be linked to tourism from the culture sector, working for galleries, in exhibitions and sales to tourists, and indirectly, it also benefited me,” she says. “Before Trump’s measures we had plenty of sales, but afterwards all that was over. Tourism within the country was greatly affected, and particularly in Cienfuegos, where the U.S. cruise ships arrived. And most of the clients we had at the moment couldn’t come anymore, and we even needed to cancel or save works that they had already asked for because we had no way of getting them to the USA.”

Photograph utilized by Roxana to advertise her free tour of Cienfuegos on the GuruWalk platform. Photo: courtesy of Roxana Capote.

Nevertheless, each Roxana and Pepe have higher expectations with the brand new U.S. government. Particularly, the young woman from Cienfuegos hopes, “as I believe just about all of Cuba expects, that with Biden bilateral relations could be resumed and there might be that communication between the 2 countries that existed at a certain time, which I believe was quite good for the people.”

“Hopefully tourism could be like before, when there have been plenty of cruise ships entering the country, with many travelers from the USA, and there was plenty of exchange between people from the 2 countries. In reality, one in all my best experiences as a guide was with a teacher from a college in Philadelphia, with whom I had the chance to exchange, to share knowledge” she says. “He was very all for knowing about Cuba, about how we young people developed here, what school was like, what we did for fun, where we could go if we could move freely across the country, because he got here with doubts about that, and when he learned how things were here, he left very happy. He told me that he had traveled to many countries, but that he never imagined that he would feel so good in Cuba, and that, if he had known this, he would have come sooner.”

Prohibit vs. legalize

Cuban free tour guides don’t only face obstacles that come from “outside.” Along with the restrictions on their work, which mean the decrease in tourism as a result of the pandemic and the U.S. embargo, there are also other limits and difficulties “from inside.” And amongst these, they’re especially concerned in regards to the prohibition to perform their activity privately, despite the recently announced expansion of self-employment, as a part of the economic reforms being carried out by the island’s government.

“I actually don’t agree with the ban. My father has been a language teacher for 40 years and is a guide, I even have colleagues who’re guides, and now all of us wonder what we’ll do. Because none of us work for state agencies,” Roxana questions logically. “These agencies hire one or two guides, at probably the most. Sometimes time goes by and so they don’t hire anyone, or they only do it once they have many services, to cover a certain moment and that’s it, it’s not that you simply grow to be a everlasting staff member. That’s why many guides work as freelancers. Everyone in Cuba knows that.”

“We private guides were never legal. It’s not something latest. And I partially understand why,” says Pepe. “I listened to the Minister of Labor when she spoke on the Mesa Redonda television program in regards to the ban, and it isn’t any less true that many individuals have posed as guides without being one, without being prepared for this job, and that what they do is scam travelers, or sell them things, cigars. That’s undoubtedly mistaken and, as well as, it gives a negative image of the country and affects the work of those that do it in an expert way, or of those that, like me, without being exactly professionals, have already got experience on this work, respect what we do and prepare to at all times do it in one of the simplest ways. As much as that time, the authorities are right.”

“Nevertheless,” he says, “the answer shouldn’t be to ban. I don’t imagine that ours is a job that may destroy the Revolution, nor do I consider it needed that it may well only be exercised through the state. I understand and defend that the country’s strategic sectors and positions are within the hands of the State, but this is just not the case. In spite of everything, guide work is an extra-hotel activity. Then, it’s shocking that out of fear that somebody will do what they shouldn’t or for lack of information, they prohibit it. I don’t think that’s the way in which.”

“I at all times put the instance of the motive force, who’s someone who must be qualified for what he does, because driving could be dangerous and by mistake, you possibly can kill one other person or you possibly can kill yourself,” he points out. “Nevertheless, the answer has not been to ban people from driving but to go to a driving school after which take a theory test and a practical test. In the event that they don’t pass, they will’t drive, and in the event that they pass, then they’re qualified to accomplish that. And that’s what I might ask the minister and the Cuban authorities: to create a mechanism to validate private guides. The Cuban government has institutions that may handle that, organize courses and provides exams. That is how it really works in other parts of the world and, moreover, that is how the State can generate income through the taxes we pay. And it could even hire us if it needed our services, as an alliance between the state sector and the non-state sector.”

José Enrique González, Pepe, in the encompassing areas of the Museum of the Revolution, in Havana, one in all the places where he takes his clients during his free tour of the Cuban capital. Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez.

Roxana, based on her experience, fully agrees with Pepe.

“It’s true that there are some individuals who have taken advantage of this work and exploit in a way that embarrasses the tourist, but I believe there are methods to regulate that without reaching prohibition, and it is just not fair that all of us pay for what some do,” she says.

“Many guides have been writing in every single place, asking that, please, all individuals who do not need a title that accredits them as guides to take an exam,” she says. “A rigorous exam, just like the one within the tourism school. And I speak with knowledge because I passed it. I needed to pass a particularly long test in a classroom, a written exam, super difficult, after which an oral test, and likewise one other test in the sphere. To pass one has to master knowledge of history, politics, culture, economics, first aid, language, about every part in life. If those that are examined come out well, then welcome. They’re given their title and there’s already official proof that they’re well-prepared guides. And in the event that they disapprove, they will’t do that job.”

“So what we’re suggesting is that those that do not need the degree take those exams and that those that have already got the degree and experience on this job be allowed to work. That the chance be opened for everybody to work as guides independently, but legally, because yes, I passed the guide test, but in the event that they catch me on the road and not using a self-employment card I could be fined, and perhaps my degree may even be taken away. And that could be resolved if they permit us as self-employed employees in the event that they allow us to have our card and pay taxes like the opposite self-employed within the country. And if someone does something illegal or in the event that they benefit from tourists, then allow them to be sanctioned, but why can’t the potential of working legally exist for others?” she wonders.

And the long run?

Despite every part, the pandemic and internal and external obstacles, Roxana and Pepe prefer to look to the long run with optimism. The enjoyment of their work as free tour guides, the rewards—not only financial but in addition skilled and private—that this activity brings them, makes them keep the doors open, waiting for once they can return in a not too distant time to walking the streets of their city with latest travelers.

“Being a guide is something that I enjoy rather a lot, that I do because I prefer it, and I won’t stop doing it when tourism can return to Cuba and have reservations again,” says Roxana. “I really like to share the culture, particularly, that of my city, my country, our traditions, and I prefer to exchange with other people from other cultures, and since my work in digital marketing can also be independent, then I’m my very own boss and I can organize my schedules to do each. I don’t think I’ll have an issue with that.”

“Let’s hope we will control the pandemic and have the vaccine soon here in Cuba in order that there’s safety for travel, and tourism could be because it was before the coronavirus and Trump’s measures,” she adds.

Roxana (left) with two clients of her free tour in Cienfuegos before the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: courtesy of Roxana Capote.

Pepe, for his part, is convinced that whether the ban that today weighs on private guides is repealed or not, they may live on on the island. “They may proceed to benefit from the legal loopholes, using other licenses similar to accommodation manager and even that of photographer. In the long run, a method or one other, people will discover a approach to proceed doing this work within the shadows, when tourism recovers, and the worst thing is that there’ll proceed to be people posing as guides because there can be no mechanism to validate them and the identical vicious cycle will proceed. So I hope that is rectified and alternatives are found that profit us all, the guides and likewise the country.”

His expectations, says the young Havanan, are many, each that the brand new U.S. administration “relaxes the travel restrictions that the previous government tightened” and that, as he has read in some articles on the topic, “there might be as a tourist explosion, like that of a bottle of champagne, when the health situation can finally improve.”

While this is occurring, Pepe continues to search for options to remain lively within the free tour, because, he affirms, “I actually like being a guide, teaching the history of my country, disproving the myths with which many individuals come to Cuba.”

“I enjoy meeting people. I actually have been able to offer tours to very different people, with very different conceptions amongst them, and this work has made me grow as an individual, has helped me to open my mind, has allowed me to know other realities, and, at the identical time, has made me study, to hunt ways to do higher what I do, to make my tour more enjoyable and entertaining,” he concludes. “I believe that on this job it is important to enjoy what you do and should you think only about money it would never look good. For me, it is vital to show the client right into a friend, to advertise a more human and direct experience. That’s why I’m in love with this job and I can’t see myself doing the rest straight away.”

Eric Caraballoso

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