Cuba as a Tourist Destination (1920-1959)
Prior to Castro's revolution, the tourism industry flourished in Cuba. Tourism was the second largest revenue source behind tourism. U.S. visitors, enticed by the extensive sandy beaches, coral islands, and mountain scenery, accounted for 86% of visitors to Cuba, pre-1959. Americas could hop on a plane from Miami, receieve lodging, food and entertainment all for $50, or a few hundred dollars today. Little wonder that Cuba attracted so many celebrities like Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Hemingway.
Along with celebrities, Cuba attracted mafia kingpins like Meyer Landsky and Santo Trafficante. The now-defunct tourism magazine Cabaret Quarterly describes Havana as "a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights" (Trumbell, 2001). With massive amounts of foreign money coming through Havana, illegal activities flourished. In the 1920's, Americans frequently traveled 90 miles south to evade prohibition. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recounting on a visit to Havana: "My fellow countreymen relled through the streets, picking up 14-year old Cuban girls and tossing coins to make men scramble in the gutter." Here, the roots of Cuban discontent with the U.S. can be realized. Even Castro recognized the seediness of his nation to the outside when he remarked that Cuba was "the brothel of the Western hemisphere" (Henry Jr. and McGlynn, 2009).
On particular flourishing prior to the revolution was sex tourism. In 1959 there were an estimated 40,000 prostitutes in the country, though the government claims the number may have been as high as 100,000. These young women migrated from the countryside to Havana in search of work. Women only constituted 17% of the work force, and of this, 70% worked as domestic servants. It is small wonder with the influx of rich tourists and the scarcity of work for women that prostitution flourished. Havana's Tropicana nightclub was the world's largest outdoor cabaret, epitomizing Cuba's desire at the time to sell sexuality as a natural resource. When Castro seized power, he ended the "sex business" and annouced that he intended to end prostitution and bring Cuban women into the working society.