Destination Revisited: Cuba…It’s Complicated but Getting Easier

Janet and I have enjoyed many unique travel experiences, but I have to say one of the most memorable was our trip to Cuba four years ago. We enjoyed seeing the country and we loved the opportunity it gave us to interact with the Cuban people. That trip highlighted the core principle of one of our suppliers…a principle we embrace through our travel business, “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” We didn’t realize at the time of our Cuba trip how difficult it would soon become to make a return visit, but getting back to Cuba remains on our list of travel goals and it just got a bit easier.

Travel to Cuba has been a bit of a roller coaster, starting with President Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions, followed by President Trump’s rollback of those more permissive rules, ending with President Biden’s pledge to revisit relations with Cuba. The anticipated return to more relaxed travel rules has been slow and was interrupted by COVID, but I’m happy to report there has been some recent progress. Tourist travel to Cuba is still not allowed, which means you can’t decide to take a weekend hop to Havana and spend your time on the beach. But commercial flights have resumed and there are once again opportunities to visit Cuba legally on State Department approved People-to-People cultural exchange tours.

We work with several suppliers licensed to operate legal and compliant tours to Cuba, and I’ve looked at their itineraries…they are similar to the land portion of the tour Janet and I took when we cruised to Cuba. The People-to-People compliance is built into the tour itinerary and the supplier does all the paperwork to make sure it is legal, so you don’t feel constrained…in most respects it is no different than traveling with any organized tour group.

For now you’ll have to settle for land tours in Cuba…cruise lines are still prohibited from sailing to Cuba from the U.S. Even after they are permitted to return, I don’t see cruise lines quick to resume sailing. The cruise lines have become mired in a civil suit brought in Florida courts by descendants of the owners of Havana Docks, a company located in Florida that claims ownership of the Havana port facilities that were nationalized following the revolution. The suit claims that the cruise lines illegally benefited from the uncompensated use of the Havana Docks facilities in Cuba under the more relaxed travel policies of the Obama administration. I don’t see any cruise line sailing to Cuba from the U.S. until the Cuban government completes construction of a new cruise pier and terminal unencumbered by claims of past ownership, a project that was just getting started when we visited in 2019.

One aspect of our tour that impressed me was the open access we had to the Cuban people. The People-to-People program provides structure for tour activities, but it doesn’t restrict you from interacting with anybody you encounter, and we did. Some chose not to talk with us, but most openly and willingly discussed life in Cuba. And they didn’t pull their punches…they gave us an unvarnished view of their lives.

The older generation of folk we talked with were still supportive of their government, even as they acknowledged its shortcomings. Younger Cubans who have only known life in today’s Cuba were far more critical and expressed impatience toward gaining greater freedom. They were quick to point out the failings of the Cuban government, divorce and alcoholism are both widespread in Cuba and food staples are rationed. It can take several months of saving rations to collect the ingredients necessary just to make a simple birthday cake. One fellow I spoke with said something that struck me as memorable, both because of the sadness and longing in his voice and the simple truth of what he said. He told me, “We don’t make anything anymore. We rely on others.” Most of the Cubans we spoke with, including the older generation, are tired of being beholden to others…the former Soviet Union, Venezuela, and increasingly their own government’s control. They openly expressed a desire for change.

Tourism remains one of the few bright spots for Cuba’s economy. We are one of the few countries that still prohibit tourist travel…even Canada allows their citizens to visit Cuba, requiring nothing more than a passport and a visa. Before COVID travel restrictions hit, tourism was a growing industry in Cuba. COVID restrictions have since been lifted and Cuba’s slowly  recovering tourism industry is fueling a growing partnership between the government and private citizens. Private business ownership which was tightly controlled before COVID has been expanded since. The Cuban government recently extended legalized ownership of private businesses to include small and medium sized operations that can employ up to 100 people. Most private businesses in the tourist sector involve families using their homes as restaurants or B&B type lodgings known as Casa Particulares. Money brought in by private businesses though tourism is taxed…at a rate of about 8% from what we were told, which the Cubans involved gladly paid. It brings in money from foreign tourists that they use to buy food and necessities that are otherwise rationed or in short supply from government stores, both to support their business and their families.

Cuba is a far cry from its pre-Castro heydays. Much of the once beautiful architecture has sadly deteriorated. A visit to today’s Cuba is a sobering experience, but one well worth making. I won’t forget the time we spent on our trip, nor will I forget the many conversations we had with the people who are eager for change and a better life. Our visits help fuel their dreams of a better Cuba, with the ability to one day live and work in freedom. I won’t pretend to understand all of the complexities involved in our government’s position on Cuba, or the pain of people who escaped the revolution with nothing but the clothes on their backs. But I have to think tourism is one way we can improve things.

Let me say again that I highly recommend visiting Cuba. Even with the constraints of the People-to-People program, or perhaps because of them, you’ll come away with experiences that challenge what you thought you knew about Cuba, and with a better appreciation for the plight of the Cuban people. Seeing Cuba for yourself is truly the best example of how you can “Change the World Simply by Meeting Its People.” Give us a call and we’ll set you up on a legal, compliant tour that you won’t soon forget.

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