While current US tourists to Cuba are older and wealthy, signs point to a millennial tourism boom.
In January, a team of researchers from J. Walter Thompson Company visited Cuba and interviewed more than 40 people about opportunities in the country. The Innovation Group will present the team’s findings at South by Southwest Interactive 2016. Here, we preview the team’s findings on Cuban tourism.
For many Americans, Cuba’s charms lie in its nostalgia, with much of its character intact from 1959. So far, American tourists in Cuba are disproportionately older and wealthy.
But Cuba is set to become a must-visit destination for millennials in coming years. In fact, a study conducted by Harris Poll in September 2015 found that as many as 46% of US millennials would consider visiting Cuba—the most of any age group, representing a potential market of around 40 million people.
Throughout our research trip, we also noticed that many of the characteristics that make Cuban cities unique are particularly in demand among US millennial tourists.
With not a Starbucks in sight, Havana appears barely touched by mass consumerism. This appeals to jaded millennials who have been marketed to relentlessly since birth. Many locals agree that preserving this aspect of the city will be key to its future success as a tourist destination.
Architect Miguel Coyula told us that even in periods of future development, Cuba could preserve its status as a mid-century time capsule by locating newer developments outside the city center. This would be similar to what Paris achieved in the past 50 years, preserving its 19th-century character while building newer business districts like La Défense outside the center of town.
Food companies in the United States are under heightened scrutiny, especially from millennials. This is leading them to shift their eating habits: a July 2015 study by the Innovation Group and J. Walter Thompson’s SONAR™ found that 80% of US millennials are willing to pay more for natural and organic food and beverages, far more than other age groups.
As US brands adjust, Cuba has already gone organic, to a large extent. During the Special Period—a time of economic collapse and hardship in Cuba in the 1990s—many Cuban farms were unable to source modern pesticides, and learned to do without them. Hungry Cubans were also allowed to farm on small plots of land. These hardships introduced elements of localism and organic growing into the food system, and today Cuba’s private restaurants, such as La Guarida in central Havana, are able to tap into this system and its top-notch ingredients. Tourists in Cuba currently pay far less for food of this quality than they would elsewhere.
Millennials in the United States have flocked to small-scale boutiques and online marketplaces like Etsy in search of one-off finds infused with the character and creativity of their producers. Cuban designers embrace these techniques not solely out of aesthetic preference, but also because of fluctuations in available materials.
At Clandestina, a design store in Havana’s historic core, Cuban designers use DIY techniques to create original objects that they call “cultural products,” rather than souvenirs. For example, they take standard-issue government toys for children and coat them in colorful sequins by hand. “Every product is a manual product, which in the end is unique, because this is never the same as that,” said Cynthia Garit, who helps design and produce items for the store. “Our challenge is not to lose that.”
The same principles prevail at Piscolabis, which sells Cuban home furnishings to international visitors and a smattering of wealthy locals. Designer Sandra de Huelbes Ocaña showed us a modern-looking desk lamp made from the lids of cooking pots, and fabric made from the magnetic tape in VHS cassettes. “We want almost all of the things to be exclusive for this store,” she says. “The fact that we need to reuse materials like this, of course makes us more creative.”
Photography by Todd Copilevitz