Cuba’s Youth Cash In on Tourism

Marlon Diaz, 20, sells churros from his family’s food cart in Viñales, Cuba. (Photo by Maximiliano Madrid)

By Maximiliano Madrid

On a recent morning in Old Havana, Luis Alonso, 19, was doing handyman work at two houses in preparation for foreign guests arriving the next day—changing locks on doors, fixing leaky pipes and making sure appliances were working.

“With the many tourists coming into the island, it has given me an additional source of income from the house owners needing last-minute work at their home,” Alonso said.

Alonso, a mechanical engineering student at a university in Havana and like many teens and young adults on the island, balances a class schedule and an apprenticeship while making time for freelance work.

He landed his first handyman clients by word of mouth. Now he carries business cards with his name and phone number that he gives to people he meets who are renting out their homes. “The cards have made it easier for potential clients to reach out to me and because of it, I have landed large and well-paying gigs in the past few months,” he said.

Penelope, a high school student, leads tours of Old Havana (Photo by Alex Sun).

Four million tourists visited Cuba in 2016, a 13 percent increase from the previous year, according to Cuba’s tourism ministry. The greatest increase has been from the United States, as Americans joined tourists who have long come from Europe. The increase came after December 2014, when Barack Obama restored partial diplomatic relationships with Cuba.

The influx has led to an increase in economic activity in the country, especially in popular tourist areas such as Havana and Trinidad, allowing entrepreneurial Cubans to pick up extra gigs. The money they earn from what is known as a “side hustle” supplements the average wage in Cuba of 687 pesos a month, about $25, far below the amount necessary to live a comfortable lifestyle.

Among the beneficiaries of this new income stream are Cuba’s young adults, whose numbers have been dwindling in recent years, said Pedro Vasquez, an architect and member of the Cuban Experts Committee.

Vasquez said the reasons for the demographic shift are twofold: Cubans leaving the country and couples choosing not to have children.

On the busy streets of Havana, many young Cubans can be seen doing some sort of activity to generate extra income whether it is licensed by the state or not. This includes street performing, operating food carts or taxi bikes and selling WiFi cards or souvenirs.

Among the many young street performers in Old Havana is this Michael Jackson impersonator. (Photo by Maximiliano Madrid)

Penelope, 17, a high school student, works at a hotel as a cook and offers private tours of Old Havana for tourists (she did not want her last name used.) She gained her first tour clients among people she met while working as a teen model, a job she left because of low wages and what she perceived among Cubans as a jaundiced perception toward women working in that industry.

Her tour business has grown as past clients recommended her to their friends visiting Cuba.

When her schedule is packed, she sends clients to her friends. Penelope also has served as an intermediary connecting two French entrepreneurs wanting to open a business with a Cuban partner.

“The key to doing well in our side businesses is to be energetic and curious and I think that is something a lot of the young Cubans have,” Penelope said.

Marlon Diaz, 20, works with his family selling snacks like chocolate-filled churros off a cart in the small town of Viñales, a venture he said has resulted in decent earnings.

“At times, we can make what doctors make in a month with one day of sales,” Diaz said. “It feels a bit liberating to be able to do this.”

Diaz said a few of his friends had left Cuba for the U.S in recent years in search of economic opportunity, but he sees opportunity at home.

“Right now is a great time in Cuba to make some extra cash, especially for the young Cubans who can figure out what to do and take action,” he said.