Tourism students get taste of Cuban culture, industry over reading week

This version corrects details about the 2012 Peru trip in paragraph 2.

A group of undergraduate students from the Ted Rogers School of Management travelled to Cuba over reading week, with the aim of studying its tourism industry in light of the country’s newly-strengthened diplomatic ties with the United States.

The trip is taken as a component of a course in the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. It’s the second trip for the course: in 2012, a group of students travelled to Peru.

Cuba was selected this year as the U.S. has recently renewed diplomatic ties with the country.

“Cuba is in transition and so extremely interesting from a hospitality and tourism perspective,” said Rachel Dodds, professor and director of the Hospitality and Tourism Research Institute at the TRSM.

Nine students travelled from Toronto to Cuba as part of an academic course. (Courtesy Michael Sadowski)

Nine students travelled from Toronto to Cuba as part of an academic course. (Courtesy Michael Sadowski)

“As tourism is Cuba’s biggest export and Canada is Cuba’s largest inbound market … examining tourism development now that the America-Cuba embargo is lifting is probably the only example of this phase of tourism development worldwide.”
Canadian government data shows that Cuba is the third most popular overseas destination for Canadians, with over one million visiting every year. With Canadians making up more than 40 per cent of visitors to the country, Canada is Cuba’s top source of tourists.

And despite the 50-year rift between the U.S. and Cuba, Canada has always maintained diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.

Karim Mohammadi, one of the nine students on the weeklong trip, said he learned firsthand of expansion plans by local industry players. He noted that they’re bracing for a possible influx of tourists following the renewal of ties between Cuba and the U.S. Mohammadi said that players in the lodging sector in Cuba are talking about expanding accommodations and operations in the country “at an exponential pace … up to 22,000 more rooms over the next five years.”

The challenge, however, that Mohammadi can foresee is whether the Cuban government can sustain the pace of expansion with the appropriate investment in infrastructure.

“Although I was impressed by the impeccable roads and well-lit streets during the trip, there were instances that made me question this rapid expansion, such as the narrow, already pretty crowded streets in Havana and our stay in (the city of) Trinidad during which we were asked to dispose of toilet paper in a bin and not flush it down the toilet because ‘our drainage system is old,’” Mohammadi said.

Aside from experiencing Cuba and studying its tourism industry, students were also expected to gain insights into the country’s political, legal, social and economic situation, added Dodds. To prepare for the trip, students spoke with a Cuban government official in Toronto and representatives from players in the tourism and hospitality industry, like hoteliers.

The Cuba trip took the group to Varadero, Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad to meet with local industry players, including cultural workers like musicians and government officials. Other students, like Mohammadi, also tried learning Cuban Spanish and salsa dancing during the trip.

Dodds said the success of last year’s Peru trip prompted the school to organize another trip because the elective course “fits well within the university’s aim for experiential learning.”

“Our students study hospitality and tourism management — understanding how tourism and hospitality actually work in the real world and seeing it firsthand is the best experiential learning opportunity a student can have,” Dodds said.

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