A country’s tourism sector is rated according to the quality of services provided. This quality is born through training and experience on the job. Over 700,000 specialists have been trained in the last two decades in this leading sector of the Cuban economy.
According to the Director of the National System for Professional Tourism Training (FORMATUR) of the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur) for Havana, Artemisa and Mayabeque, Elena Garcia-Ramó, the first objective is to maintain good service, achieve a culture of attention to detail, and attract greater numbers of tourists, through the constant training, specialization and motivation of personnel.
“Ensuring that knowledge impacts service and furthers the learning and use of languages, in response to the specifics of different markets, are our principal obligations,” she explained, while noting that health and hygiene standards must also improve.
In the context of the updating of the Cuban economic model, tourism education and training is facing new challenges, given the need to prepare the self-employed and improve tourist guides, who are in wide demand given increased cruise ship arrivals to Cuba.
Although tourism schools emerged after the triumph of the Revolution, and went through endless changes of name and structure, the education system was simplified last October.
The system is now organized in training centers, which exist in almost all provinces of the country, to prepare those who are directly linked to the hotel and tourism sectors, while there is a specialized school to serve managerial staff.
Meanwhile, postgraduate education in the sector is provided at Ministry of Higher Education (MES) approved centers. According to Garcia-Ramó, through a policy marked by collaboration with educational institutions, training is strengthened within tourist facilities and companies themselves.
INSIDE THE SCHOOL
When tourism, as an emerging sector, became the main source of hard currency income for the country, the challenge of training new professionals as speedily as possible arose, explained Miriam Rendón, Mintur head of tourism schools.
Until the 1990s, the majority of tourists Cuba received came from the Soviet Union, but today the situation is different. “Growing as a tourist destination has made us go beyond the traditional classroom. We link ourselves to the introduction of improvements in the sector; we participate in the development of Cuban quality standards; and we are part of the classification process of hotels and restaurants,” the Mintur specialist added.
Schooling in the sector is divided into vocational training, on-the-job training, postgraduate education and languages. The system aims to be comprehensive, while allowing for greater specialization. For example, Rendón explained, after having qualified as a cook, those who wish to, may go on to further training to become chefs.
Basic training areas include pastry-making, baking, culinary, gastronomic and room services, commercial and reception services, entertainment, and tour guides (specializing in nature excursions or cities).
Rendón specified that the sector receives those who have completed their high school education, but does not offer further educational levels itself. “Qualification for various jobs is possible as professional and technical training for people aged between 17 and 35 is provided. However, in the refresher courses, anyone is welcome, regardless of age,” she noted.
In general, or according to the specific purposes of a given job, languages are also part of training in the sector. “Although English dominates, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Russian are taught, as well as any other language requested,” the specialist added.
One of the strengths of the study programs is that 70% of the course is practical, while just 30% is based on theory. Sometimes, Rendón explained, there are students who are very intellectually gifted, but who struggle with areas demanding strong practical skills. “One can impart knowledge, but not aptitude,” she noted.
Rendón, who is also an educator, explained that through in-depth analysis of training plans, recognized both within and outside of the island, tourist entertainment has been identified as the most difficult specialty area to staff with adequate personnel, given the need for those with artistic and sporting skills.
She also noted that in the case of tour guides, the essential requirement is knowledge of Cuban culture and geography, as well as good communication skills. For receptionists, on the other hand, a proper physical presence and excellent language skills are required.
Through seminars, conferences, courses and workshops, ongoing training, especially during the low tourist season, is focused on political-ideological values and the prevention of drugs and terrorism.
Elena Garcia-Ramó stressed that, if one thing distinguishes teaching staff in the sector, it is the ability to address many areas at once and provide speedy training. “They have one day to teach cold area kitchen skills, and three months to cover sauces and hot food.”
Unlike general education, training, as experienced Italian teacher Luis Rodríguez, at the Training Center for Havana, Artemisa and Mayabeque, explained, is aimed at the specific needs of younger students and also helps more experienced workers.
Furthermore, studies of potential or existing products and tourist destinations are conducted and, in conjunction with the MES, eight tourism specialties have been established at a level equivalent to a masters degree, including management, human resources, marketing and accounting-finance.
According to Jusaely Santori, a professor of Accommodations and Floor Management of the Training Center, it is essential to increase the cultural level of workers, instill honesty, reliability and responsibility, and engage students who are gifted in the area. “If one does not enjoy making others feel good, it is impossible to provide good service,” she noted.
Santori also highlighted that Mintur schools played a fundamental role not only in regards to state facilities, but also the private sector: “Currently, behind many of the self-employed businesses are graduates from these institutions.”
After 20 years linked to the sector, self-employed worker Enrique Samuel stated that it is a privilege to train as a professional in a sector that, in other parts of the world, serves as a source of employment for those seeking to fund other studies. “We keep ourselves updated, as we have to keep up with technology. We have excellent human capital and we contribute daily to being more competitive in tourism,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, the young Félix Martínez, who is studying Gastronomic Services, believes that the school is like the major league of tourism, and noted there is much demand among the youth to study here.
Cooking student, José Álvarez, added that the school has provided him with something that he would not find at other universities: the practice that allows students to complete their professional training.