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A Different September in Havana


Havana was hot the first half of September. The old city was alive with music, voices and activity. After a short lull in August, top restaurants were full.

September is usually quieter. Now things are changing and you notice it clearly from month to month. New restaurants and bars are popping up everywhere. Numerous direct flights from the U.S. are arriving full every day, and the number of American visitors is clearly up a lot.

The manager of one of the best hotels told me that occupancy this month is usually a languid 20 percent or so, but is over 90 percent this year. Bookings are already full at choice properties through Christmas.

You hear persistent speculation from travel operators and hospitality people about further liberalization of U.S. travel regulations and early resumption of full commercial air service from the U.S. Those are hard issues on both sides, but it’s easy to sense momentum. In any case, tarmacs already get stacked with planes from American Airlines, Jet Blue, Sun Country and others, all technically charters. I was struck too by the number of private jets landing at Havana’s José Martí airport.

Meanwhile, you can’t miss signs that Havana is gearing up for more and more visitors, starting with Pope Francis tomorrow. Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral), and Havana’s beautiful coral-stone 18th century “Cuban Baroque” cathedral have been getting a facelift for the occasion, as have many parts of Habana Vieja.

For all the warmth and enthusiasm you experience with regular Cubans, there is still clearly a sense of bureaucratic cautiousness on the part of government travel agencies and related concerns. It is a “by the book” approach that may temper somewhat, but doesn’t really impede, the excitement of visitors and Cubans who are interacting in all sorts of new ways that are making Cuba a more and more interesting destination.

But there is a lot of innovation on the official side too. I heard the government is about to launch a “tobacco route” itinerary in the western province of Pinar del Rio, much like the “wine routes” common in important wine regions in France, the U.S., Italy and elsewhere. On the edge of Old Havana a giant renovation is underway on an early 20th century building that should emerge in early 2017 as Havana’s top luxury property, managed by Kempinski. City planners have ambitious plans to forge ahead with accelerated restoration of large parts of the weathered city.

This is an exciting moment, as two eras touch each other. It is easy to imagine Havana in 10 years having a very different feel. Crisper and more cosmopolitan maybe, but still rooted in the style and tradition that make up its unique and compellingly attractive identity. But for now an older Havana survives—markedly less commercial, and more culturally genuine than any Caribbean city I have ever experienced.

– William McIlhenny, Co-Publisher of