Tourism, Historic Preservation and Urban Renewal: The Case Study of Old Havana

Isabela Lyrio
July 23, 2015

Because of its location near the water, Old Havana has had a significant commercial function since Cuba was colonized by the Spanish, serving as a port and an area of cultural exchange in downtown Havana. Characterized by narrow roads, big plazas, and its colonial architectural heritage, Old Havana is one of the main touristic attractions in the city, largely due to the work done by the Office of the City Historian and Habaguanex.

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Habana Vieja by David Mas

 Old Havana has been an important touristic location in Cuba for decades with the government investing in revitalization of the region since the late 70s.  However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba lost its most influential trading partner and went through an economic collapse known as the Special Period. In order to attract tourism, the Cuban government put great effort towards further redeveloping the region. Its main focus involved the revitalization of Old Havana’s economy and buildings.

The Office of The City Historian aims to preserve and propagate Cuban culture and heritage. In 1978 Old Havana was declared a national monument and in 1982 UNESCO incorporated the area as a World Heritage Site. The Office of the City Historian also provides socially oriented services like workshops from different professionals or specialists to teach young adults employable skills.

Habaguanex, a Cuban corporation that works with the historical and cultural product in Havana, was created to take over all publicly owned businesses in the region, partnered with The Office of the City Historian to redevelop Old Havana.   Habaguanex invested in hotels and restaurants in Old Havana and redirected the profits generated from the investments towards historic preservation in the municipality.  Sites like the central plazas (Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza San Francisco), and places with the potential for tourism like Earnest Hemingway’s old residence have been restored, in addition to the ongoing restoration of aging buildings in order to maintain Havana’s architectural heritage.

Habaguanex investments led to an increase in tourist related business and employment for local residents.  The services offered by Habaguanex, however, are primarily geared towards tourists, creating a division in patterns of consumption that alienates foreigners from locals. With an average monthly income of 20CUC, those who work in the public sector cannot eat at the newly restored luxury restaurants where food averages 10-15CUC a serving.  Political reforms in 2010 allowed for specific openings to the private economy, and residents who own businesses in Old Havana often work in the tourism trade and make substantially more than those who are employed by the state.
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Habana Vieja, by David Mas

The gains from government investment in the region allow for urban renewal and employment of many locals, who see this project in a positive light.  In September of 2004, The Office of The City Historian employed 11,108 workers and 49% of these resided in Old Havana, creating a sustainable model where locals share the profits and benefits of the redeveloped and revitalized region.

While there is a rupture in patterns of consumption in the area, The Office of The City Historian has invested heavily in cultural activities, which are subsidised for Cuban people, making culture a significant backbone of this redevelopment project.  Many museums in the region have partnerships with local schools, which organize field trips for the students on a regular basis.

Setbacks still exist in regards to alienation of locals from offered services; however revitalization plans in Old Havana provide a sustainable model of benefitting locals with employment in a time political change.  Revitalization attracts tourism, providing residents the opportunity to thrive in private businesses as well as generating profit for the Cuban economy. Focusing on historical preservation as well as culture makes this a unique example of sustainable urban revitalization, maintaining and adding value to the municipality of Old Havana.

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