The year 2017 was a record for Cuba’s tourism industry, with visitors pumping more than three billion dollars into the island’s struggling economy, and it hopes to surpass that figure this year.
Among Cuba’s attractions are the classic American cars that serve as taxis for tourists and locals alike.
CGTN’s Joel Richards reports from Havana – on the ongoing challenge to keep them running.
It is low season for Cuba’s tourist industry, but 34-year-old Maykel Reynaldo says driving tourists around Havana in this 1952 Chevrolet is one of the best jobs around, regardless of the time of year.
“These cars are unique,” says Reynaldo. “In other countries, they are collectors’ items, they are not taxis like here. In Cuba, these cars were imported until 1959, but there were no more after that.”
The old cars harken back to pre-Revolution Cuba and are the postcard image of this island. And tourists can pay 30, 40- or even 50-dollars an hour for the experience.
Cuba is often described as an open-air museum because of these classic American Cars which are a tourist attraction in themselves. But as well as being a tourist attraction, they are also an integral part of daily life in this country.
Experts estimate there are still around 70,000 1950s-era cars on the streets of Cuba. With limited public transport, many serve as taxis.
Some Cubans are classic car collectors, like Julia Medina. She found this 1958 Austin Healey in 2013 on the outskirts of Havana, and three mechanics spent two years restoring the old English car.
“I think it is important, keeping these cars after so many years is a great achievement despite some not having the original parts,” says Medina. “But it has merit. Some people use them as their own car, some as a hobby, and that has a value.”
With little access to tools and spare parts, Cuban mechanics are renowned for their ingenuity and ability to keep these cars running.
Writer and historian Marcelo Gorajuria said locals get around the U.S. economic embargo by engaging back-channel means to secure replacement parts, often one piece at a time, from abroad.
“Given the distance to the United States, with the amount of people coming and going, people bring catalogs, spare parts, and technical information. That is the passion of the Cuban people to keep these cars going,” explains Gorajuria, adding that “it is expensive.”
And though there are environmental worries about these old gas guzzlers, Maykel Reynaldo says they’re now an important part of the country’s heritage.
“Without these cars, Cuba is nothing. This is the history of Cuba, the cars, it is everything, Cuba is a museum.”
The old cars are an integral part of Cuban life – both for locals and for tourists. And with every passing year it is an ever-challenging proposition for Cubans to keep them running smoothly.