Clemson’s first study abroad trip to Cuba demonstrates importance of tourism to economy, culture
Last month, a group of students led by Clemson faculty took part in the University’s first study abroad program in Cuba. The program studied the intersections of tourism and society from the historic to the modern. It also applied a critical lens to how the travel and tourism industry interfaced with social structures and norms such as race gender, class and sexual orientation influence daily life for many Cubans.
The student group was led by Lauren Duffy, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, and Kendra Stewart-Tillman, director of diversity and inclusion at the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center. Duffy says this study abroad program was particularly timely, as it allowed students to see first-hand the impact tourism can have on a society.
“In Cuba, tourism is an important industry sector, and the country is largely dependent on revenue from inbound travelers,” Duffy says.
The visit came during a period of instability between Cuba and the U.S. Political issues including increased travel restrictions combined with political unrest in allying countries has resulted in an economic downturn in Cuba, with food shortages in key household items, such as meat, eggs and flour.
“Being in Cuba during these events gave students valuable insight into both the impact tourism can have on a country’s economy, infrastructure, quality of life and culture as well as how intertwined Cuba-U.S. relations have been historically,” Duffy says. “It also allowed students to critically challenge popular narratives regarding this relationship.”
Before they left for the trip, students studied the history of travel and tourism in Cuba and socio-political considerations. This ensured students had the background they needed to be able to assess the current state of tourism while also considering how it has been shaped by a history of colonialism, slavery, racism and gender ideology.
“Understanding a country’s past and how it impacts its present and future state helps students apply a different lens to their travel experience,” Duffy says. “When you understand a country’s history and heritage, you are better equipped to understand how key tourism topics such as conservation, preservation and economic impact cannot be addressed with one-size-fits-all solutions.”
While in Cuba, the students experienced the country’s rich Afro-Cuban heritage through visits to colonial, pre-Revolution and post-Revolution interpretative sites. Discussions with guest speakers through the Center for José Martí Studies helped students unpack the complexities of living in a socialist country with an evolving mixed-economy that is largely spurred by growth of private sector enterprises within tourism – a change that has allowed for a classist society to re-emerge within Havana.
The program was developed through a partnership between the Gantt Multicultural Center and the parks, recreation and tourism management department, with scholarship support provided by the Gantt Center to increase underrepresented student participation in study abroad programs. Stewart-Tillman says she was happy to be able to support several students in the inaugural cohort of the Gantt Study Abroad Fellows.
“The fellowship program provided funding assistance for underrepresented students populations that do not typically study abroad at high rates,” Stewart-Tillman says. “This was the first time Clemson sponsored a trip to Cuba and we hope this becomes a regular opportunity for our students in the future.”