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The Vibe in Havana

A Cuban woman smoking cigar in Old Havana.
A Cuban woman smoking cigar in Old Havana.

“You have a beautiful passport,” said the woman behind the window of the money exchange in Plaza de San Francisco as we hand her some Canadian dollars. She had a massive smile and it wasn’t because of the “handsome” passport photo. She was really grumpy and uninterested until we showed her our U.S. passport. But she couldn’t have been nicer after she knew we were American.

This really describes the vibe in Havana at the moment. Everyone seems incredibly excited with the prospects ahead of more Americans visiting their country and everything else in the future with the United States.

The optimism is oozing. People see a light in the future that shines on something very new and exciting. “We are really happy to have Americans like you coming to Cuba,” said our taxi driver the night before. “This is what Cuba needs.”

smiling kids

Yet, you have to wonder where everyone is going to fit in Havana when tourists start arriving from the United States. We spent a large part of the weekend in Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana and we could barely move as thousands of Cubans – mostly families – crowded the square to see a large outdoor art exhibit. We had never seen anything like it in more than 23 years of coming to the island for journalism.

Everyone was smiling, happy, and positive. “We see a light in the future and it means so much to us,” adds a worker in the house of a close friend.

The first step, of course, will be more Americans in Cuba. Until recently only a few hundred thousand of Cuba’s 2-3 million annual visitors have come from the U.S.  This is changing fast.  What happens if in the near future millions of Americans come to the island?

At the moment, not enough of everything is available to suffice this. Quality hotel rooms are hard to come by and mostly full. Havana has some really great  restaurants but not enough.   We bet there are not even 2,000 seats in all the top restaurants in Havana.  But it doesn’t matter. It’s going to be worth coming!

And what about cigars – not fakes – in all the official tobacco shops in Havana? Stocks seem very low from what we can see. Maybe they are holding back boxes for the next Habanos cigar festival?

Just think about it. We believe just about anyone coming legally from the United States will bring their $100 worth of cigars back to America. That’s about eight to 10 cigars. If a million visitors in 2015 (by some projections) bring back 8-10 each, close to 10 million Cuban cigars will have been legally imported this year.  If three million Americans visit Cuba in a few years, the number is going to be 30 million!

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