Guidebook representations of Cuba regularly promote clichéd ideas about the country and its people, creating an environment that exploits the local population while claiming to be providing an ‘authentic’ experience for travellers.
Research by Dr Rebecca Ogden, a lecturer in Latin American studies, examined several guidebooks produced on Cuba over the last 20 years. This is a time span that has seen Cuba continually said to be on the cusp of major change and becoming more open to the West.
As such there has been a pervading sense that tourists need to visit the country ‘before it changes’ so they can experience the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ Cuba.
However, much of the ideas presented in these books do little more than reinforce stereotypes of the population such as everyone being ‘carefree’ and ‘happy’ and often focusing on the idea of the ‘Latin lover’ caricature and that casual sex is commonplace.
Furthermore, to satisfy travellers’ desire for intimate and authentic experiences in Cuba, guidebooks have the effect of exploiting the local population by presenting them as uniformly open and friendly and treating guests as equals, rather than paying customers.
Specifically, Dr Ogden’s research notes that many guidebooks promote the idea of staying in casa particulares – i.e. everyday Cubans’ homes rented out for around $30 a night – rather than state-run hotels as this provides the chance for intimate knowledge of Cubans and their lifestyles.
While there is a fee involved, the guidebooks often give the impression Cubans running such establishments do so because they are friendly people, rather than because it helps them survive.
They suggest Cubans will always treat guests as friends, from sharing drinks to discussing sensitive politics, without any suggestion a traveller could be intruding on their private space or that this goes above and beyond the usual host-guest dynamic.
Overall, the impression given by guidebooks to travellers about Cuba has the effects of normalising encounters with the local population that are actually exploitative and gloss over the complexities of the nation and its people, while conversely claiming to offer an ‘authentic’ insight on the country.
The paper, entitled Lonely planet: affect and authenticity in guidebooks of Cuba, has been published in the journal Social Identities.