Americans are visiting Cuba in record numbers–up 77% in 2015, to over 160,000, not even including hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans. That number includes the U.S. President, Secretary of State, other cabinet officers, and legions of governors, senators, representatives, and staffers. But Cuba is still a very exotic-seeming destination for most in the U.S., despite its proximity and the huge cultural ties the countries share.
The bottom line is that a number of perceptions, some fact, but mostly fiction, continue to keep a lot of people from traveling. And it shouldn’t be like that.
This was reconfirmed recently by a fascinating survey results published by the insurance company Allianz during President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba. Their data showed 42% of American respondents wanted to visit Cuba, but only 7% were “very likely” to.
The biggest disincentives cited in the Allianz poll are the most inaccurate: safety concerns (44%) and fear of Cuba’s communist government (15%).
This is ironic. Violent crime in Cuba is dramatically lower than anywhere else in Latin America and generally far lower than in big U.S. cities. As to concern about Cuba’s government, first-time visitors, in our experience, are invariably struck by the smooth and friendly welcome they experience, starting with immigration and customs officials they encounter at the airport. Cuban’s are happy Americans are visiting their homeland. They look after Americans.
It is obvious today the Cuban and American governments are encouraging more visits, convinced it serves the interests of both peoples. The U.S. has greatly simplified procedures for legal travel, and Cuba has done likewise. Most Americans traveling under the “people to people” general license are amazed at the routine ease with which they can get a Cuban “tourist card” directly from the charter companies that operate about 24 flights a day between the U.S. and Cuba.
Old stereotypes aside, the average visitor can travel freely around the island, and will encounter no shortage of people who readily share their varied opinions on almost any topic. Yes, Cuba is a communist country with a socialist economy that is under big strains. It is organized along very different lines than most countries you may have visited. Yet American visitors are usually quick to see the many human values our societies’ share, particularly as Cuba advances slowly down the path of self-directed economic and social reform.
There is no shortage of bureaucratic and logistical annoyances, many with roots in the formerly hostile relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The embargo remains in place, and despite a loosening of restrictions on travel-related transactions neither U.S. banks nor the Cuban authorities have rushed to facilitate use of American credit cards. So, for Americans, a visit to Cuba is still a cash affair, and exchanging U.S. dollars (as opposed to other convertible currencies) will entail a whopping surcharge of up to 13% at the government owned exchange houses.
As we have reported , travel infrastructure is inadequate to the number of visitors. Demand often exceeds supply. So hotel reservations can be hard to get, or can evaporate. Taxis routinely overcharge. Internet access is costly and slow, when available.
This will change in time. The signs are all around, from the proliferation of private guest houses and AirBnB properties to legions of informal service personnel, new restaurants, and an entrepreneurial spirit that is not quite free but still surging. U.S. Hotel groups Starwood and Marriott just signed contracts to restore and manage hotels in Cuba. The governments have announced the restoration of regular passenger air service, which will further increase the number of flights and decrease their cost.
For now, some inconvenience is just part of the price of admission to an amazingly beautiful country. It has weathered a hard century. Its attractiveness today, contradictions and all, speaks volumes about resilience of culture and identity.
Whether you are attracted by the half-millennium-old urban fabric of Havana (literally in every degree of preservation), the most complete biodiversity in the Caribbean, resurgent centuries-old culinary fusion traditions, or a society feeling its way into the 21st century from a very different past than ours, Cuba is a travel experience like no other. And this is a very special moment to visit.
Approach it respectfully, as an adventure, or re- acquaintance with an old friend, and you are unlikely to be disappointed. Even less so if you do your travel homework, and connect with one of the many companies experienced in Cuba travel for Americans. It’s tempting to go solo, but in our view for now it is more efficient and rewarding to get some assistance with logistics and scheduling.
– William McIlhenny, Co-Publisher of HavanaInsider.com