Today’s newsletter post is a recent newspaper article I wrote. I think it is important for as many Americans as possible to know this information in order to begin to understand the current situation, and why those Americans wishing to travel to Cuba should think about going sooner, rather than later.
Traveling to Cuba: Ten Things You Should Know
Even though the governments of Cuba and the U.S. continue to bad-mouth each other, there is a lot going on just under the radar. Today, Americans are visiting Cuba in increasing numbers. If you’ve ever wanted to visit, now is the time. Here are ten things I think you should know.
Cuba is fascinating, beautiful, and historical. It has many sites which were very significant in American and world history. For over two centuries, Havana was the cultural, economic, and military center of the entire western hemisphere. In just seven years, it will be celebrating its 500th anniversary as a functioning capital city.
Cubans really like Americans and enjoy interacting with them. Cubans aren’t looking for foreign aid handouts. They simply want Americans to visit, spend money, enjoy the many historic sites, check out the museums, photograph the colonial architecture, admire restored American cars from the 1950’s, go dancing, play at the beach, and have fun.
Cuba is one of the world’s safest countries for tourists. You can wander around Old Havana late at night, listening to many excellent musical groups, and not have to worry about getting hit over the head. Cubans realize the value of their country’s reputation as a safe travel destination. They watch out for tourists to make sure nothing happens to them. Violent crime is extremely rare.
Even though the governments of Cuba and the U.S. continue to bad-mouth each other, there is a lot going on under the radar moving both countries towards normalization. Both of the Castro Brothers are in their 80’s and in poor health. New people-to-people programs, encouraged and expanded under the Obama Administration, seem to be quite successful so far.
Americans have always been able to travel to Cuba, although there were more restrictions from 2004-2007. Most of my 19 trips have involved nursing and health care research, but it is becoming easier for pure “tourists” to travel there without having to fit into various restricted categories. They will usually travel with a specific theme in mind, such as architecture or health care.
Most of my flights to Cuba originated in Cancún, and several times I flew directly from Miami. Airports in those cities, along with Toronto, have historically been the gateways to Cuba. In 2011, there were also direct flights from New York and Los Angeles, although the schedules from LAX were erratic. By the end of 2012, Americans will be able to fly non-stop to Havana from Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Key West, New Orleans, San Juan, and Tampa.
2011 was Cuba’s best year ever for tourism, and it is projected to steadily improve each year over the next decade, even without more Americans. Many Europeans who previously vacationed in North Africa are looking elsewhere because of the recent turmoil in that region. They find it hard to ignore Cuba’s political stability, safe reputation, and beautiful beaches. Canadians, with their relatively stable economy, have made Cuba their favorite warm-weather destination for years. When you add rapidly-increasing interest in Cuba travel by nearby Americans to this mix, it is clear that the supply of hotel rooms and other tourist requirements is not going to keep up with the demand. The Cuban travel industry knows exactly how to correct this imbalance: they’ll increase the rates for all services. They’ve learned about market economics from their capitalistic neighbor to the north, and from their capitalistic-communist friends in Beijing. In the past year, there have been more organized, licensed tours from the U.S. to Cuba, but many of them are expensive. There are several organizations that offer the typical 10-day escorted tour of Cuba for $3000, $4000, and even $5000. The tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions—at $5100 per person plus airfare from Miami–are completely sold out, and they’re scrambling to schedule more. Even Insight Cuba—the first organization to offer purely “tourist” trips, advertises extensively online and offers a 9-day tour for around $3400. Most of their tours are also completely booked for several months. There are less expensive ways to visit Cuba, but even these will become more costly every year.
In the near future it will become more apparent how much the embargo has cost the U.S. and American businesses. In a more perfect world, American investors would have been able to take advantage of their money and close proximity to help guide the evolving travel industry in Cuba. Instead, we have to read about projects such as the 600-room luxury hotel scheduled to be built at the Hemingway Marina just west of Havana. The investor is Suntine International Trading Company of China, which is putting up $150 million dollars to become partners with the Cuban government on this project. Their target market: wealthy future travelers from the United States. Gee–that embargo is really working well! Let’s just give it another fifty years, and I’ll bet by then, Fidel will no longer be in power.
This is definitely the year to visit Cuba, but not because American tourists are going to “ruin” the country. Because of current trends and future demand, it will likely become increasingly more expensive. But if things fall into place as I hope, the country could have a bright future. Its literacy rate is close to 100%. Cubans tend to have small families—zero, one, or perhaps two children. Health care is universal (but very basic, and facilities are usually short of supplies). An estimated billion dollars or more a year flow into the country from exiles in south Florida to their families, with much more to follow once the present government evolves. Cubans understand basic market economics—they know that it is the powerful, somewhat out-in-the-open black market that keeps goods and services moving; not socialist economics.
I think Americans should visit now, to understand what Cuba is like today, and to contribute to this great, ongoing transition. Some will make friends who could possibly become future business partners. I sincerely believe that Cuba is capable of changing in the next ten years as much as China has changed in the past forty. I also expect it to eventually become one of America’s best allies.