Thinking of traveling to Cuba?
Then think of crystal blue waters of the Caribbean lapping at pristine shores.
Think of the beat of salsa music and cigar smoke drifting in the air. Think of friendly locals with ready smiles and beautiful baroque architecture lining narrow streets.
Cuba has the romance Paris would kill for.
But things are changing fast for this politically isolated fledgling tourist spot. Perhaps too fast.
So what effects have these changes made to the country? Is it safe to go to Cuba? And is it still worth visiting Cuba?
We asked Cuba travel tips expert, and founder and owner of the Cuba tours company Cuban Adventures, John Ahrens about what it’s like to visit Cuba now.
A Brief History of US Tourism in Cuba
Cuba has seen an enormous amount of change happen over the past few years. And considering prior to 2014, Cuba had been forced into a time warp since the 1950s, these changes will have been momentous.
In 2014, President Obama – the first US president to visit Havana since Coolidge in 1928 – loosened restrictions on traveling to Cuba and trade between America and Cuba.
Obama didn’t remove the embargo completely, but the changes he made had an instant impact on Cuba and the travel community at large.
Talk of mass tourism, chain restaurants, globalization and the spoiling of the Cuban culture have created a lot of uncertainty for those that want to visit Cuba.
And concerns over President Trump’s movements to reverse travel restrictions – not to mention Hurricane Irma’s devastating run – have also dampened people’s urge to go there.
10 CHANGES YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT TRAVELING TO CUBA
1. What Can American Travelers Do?
Prior to 2014, it was very unusual to find any visitors from the USA in Cuba. Restrictions on US citizens traveling to Cuba meant that Americans had to be part of educational tours and there were no commercial direct flights to Cuba from USA.
The Obama changes in 2014 made it legal for Americans to travel to Cuba without having to go on an escorted group tour. This led to a surge in American visitors.
By presidential decree, Obama did as much as he could to let Americans take trips to Cuba, and for the 2 countries to trade and coordinate, though he was not able to end the trade embargo itself, which is written into the Constitution.
2. How Many Tourists are Visiting Cuba Now?
Over 4 million people visited Cuba in 2016.
Obama’s changes to travel restrictions mean that US citizens being allowed to come into Cuba easier and because of this, travelers from other countries have seen Cuba as a viable travel destination too.
The effect of this was a large increase in tourist numbers in 2016. The figures I’ve seen mentioned are an increase between 25% to 30%, which was on top of a similar increase in 2015.
This may not sound like a lot but, during peak holiday periods, Cuban infrastructure couldn’t keep up. There were not enough beds for all the visitors.
3. Is There Enough Accommodation in Cuba?
Unless you know what you’re doing, finding accommodation in Cuba independently can be quite tricky and even more so now with so many people visiting.
Independent tourists were forced to sleep in the public squares of popular towns such as Trinidad and Vinales, and Cubans, ever the improvisors, were renting out the back seats of their parked vintage Chevys for $10 a night.
4. What New Accommodation Options Are There For Tourists?
Hotels in Cuba had a reputation for often being expensive and poorly maintained.
However, locals are allowed by government licence to house visitors in their homes called casa which is a wonderful way to see the real Cuba.
Many more families have built an extra room in their home and licensed their house as a guesthouse for tourists to stay in.
In some popular Cuba destinations such as Vinales, where the original town is quite small in size, nearly every house is a licensed guesthouse for tourists.
In the centre of Vinales, it’s actually hard to find a house these days that is not a guesthouse.
Many guesthouses that already existed have added extra rooms. Some guesthouses now have up to 12 rooms for tourists (much like a mini hotel), which is something that was hard to imagine just a few years ago.
The Cuban government has built more hotels and given out contracts to large foreign hotel groups to build and manage new hotels, such as the impressive Manzana Kempinski on Havana Central Square.
5. Is Now the Last Chance to See the ‘REAL’ Cuba…?
The rise in numbers traveling to Cuba aren’t all from America – but this could have a contributing factor in why all the world wants to see Cuba now.
Visitors from other countries increased as well. The motive for them being able to see Cuba before laws further relax meaning even more Americans would flood the island, changing it forever.
6. What Should You Say at US customs?
One of the biggest concerns about how to travel to Cuba from USA is getting back into the States after a trip to Cuba. Leaving America isn’t a problem and providing you know what to say when you’re coming back in, you’ll be fine.
At Cuban Adventures, we get our US travelers to report their experience to us when returning to the US and passing through immigration. So far, none of them have reported having their paperwork checked.
The harshest interrogation was “what were you doing in Cuba”, and providing the answer “people-to-people tourism” was enough to get waved through.
One client reported to us that when she answered “people-to-people-educational”, the official replied with a very friendly “that`s the right answer”.
7. Can You Still Find ‘THE REAL CUBA’ if You Visit Now?
These changes to travel into Cuba have had a positive effect not only on incoming tourism but also on the locals too. Private business ventures are popping up everywhere, especially in the most popular places to visit in Cuba.
What’s great about that is that these are all small-scale private businesses run by the local Cubans themselves, and owned by individuals and families.
So if you’re visiting Cuba now, with the exception of spending time at a beach resort, you are very much in contact with authentic Cuban culture and society for the entirety of your visit.
These freedoms and increased income opportunities mean that Cubans are also happier and more relaxed.
Is it safe to travel to Cuba? You can still see the odd hustler in the streets in Old Havana, but those sorts of encounters are now much less frequent.
8. What Are the Biggest Challenges for Visitors to Cuba?
Make no mistake, Cuba is still a challenging place to explore.
Infrastructure is still poorly equipped to accommodate so many visitors and – in spite of it seeming like a developed country – there are still many parts to Cuban life that are stuck in the past.
Internet access is still difficult, however I would say the biggest challenge for travelers is getting access to their money.
You can’t pay for things with credit cards in Cuba. You have to pay in cash in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC).
You can get CUC cash out of ATMs, however many foreign bank cards do not work in Cuba. Cards from American banks and banks that are owned by American banks (e.g. Citibank, Westpac, St George) do not work in Cuba either.
Other banks simply take the extra precaution of not having their cards work in Cuba even though they are not American banks.
However, this situation is better than it was before.
In 2015, Mastercard allowed its cards to work in Cuba, but some banks still block transactions from their clients trying to use Mastercards there.