In the weeks following the historical announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana, New York tour operators reported increases of 57% in reservations to Cuba. In February the increase reached 187% and in March an astonishing 250%.
The travel boom is just one example of how many Americans want to go to Cuba, the forbidden island, and experience the authenticity of this time-forgotten island before American chains like Starbucks start popping up on the corners of Old Havana or before Coca Cola signs take over the facades of colonial-era buildings and classic cars disappear among the modern craze. Tourists around the world are concerned that this new change in diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring countries will impulse an invation of American tourists. “We think that if things relax, it will become another branch of Florida,” said Thomas Mieszkowski, a 28-year-old tourist from the UK. “So there’s a sort of feeling that before things open to the tourist market, we would like to see how it is”.
Although foreigners often idealise many aspects of Cuba, like its nearly deserted beaches, its architecture that looks like an old portrait of the 50s, or the social achievements of the revolution; what many Cubans see are dilapidated buildings that need remodelling, and many others crave the arrival of the changes and the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States to have purchasing power and feel that they have economic opportunities. For others the change also involves having internet access and connecting with the outside world, which would boost a dynamic that could bring more prosperity to the day to day economy.
“We’re excited,” said Yadiel Carmenate, a 26-year-old English student working as a tour guide. But Cubans also believe that it is unlikely that things will change overnight. The conversations for taking the first steps towards the normalization of the relations are just beginning, and there is strong opposition in US Congress to lift the embargo that has been running for 53 years, prohibiting almost all trade with Cuba, and travelling to the island. “We are going to preserve our identity at all costs,” said Carmenate. “So I think it will be very difficult for you to find a McDonalds or Starbucks on every corner”.
Currently, Americans have travel restrictions to Cuba, but with the announcement of presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, 12 categories of visitors will come to the island without having to request complicated permissions, whether for cultural, religious or educational matters. It is, however, a relaxation of the rules that is not enough for Americans to travel freely to the island and enjoy their vacation as they might in the Dominican Republic or Bahamas.
Nonetheless, the December announcement seems to have provoked an unprecedented arrival of tourists. According to official numbers from the tourism sector, one of the Cuban economy engines, visits increased by 16% in January compared with the same month in 2014, especially with the arrival of Canadians, Germans, British, Argentines, Venezuelans and Mexicans. However, it was not specified how many of the 371,000 travellers who landed on the island were Americans.
Tom Popper, the president of the InsightCuba company based in New York, and who has authorisation to organise groups of American travellers, said that not only their bookings increased by 250% in March, but hoped to bring 170 groups to the island this year, opposed to the 150 from last year. “There has been a kind of snowball effect,” Popper said. “People want to go before Cuba changes”.
Last year, according to official figures, the country welcomed three million tourists from around the world, a true record. That includes about 600,000 people from the United States, including Cuban-Americans who came to visit relatives. In 2013, about 95,000 Americans arrived on the island under the context of cultural, religious and educational means, with permission or illegally, through third countries like the Bahamas or Mexico, before touching Cuban soil. The Cuban authorities estimate that 1.5 million Americans will travel to Cuba every year if all restrictions were to be lifted, which would surpass Canada as the main source of tourists, which could mean an increase of 2 billion dollars in the state’s incomes. Currently, Cuba earns a revenue of 2.6 billion dollars annually.
But the Caribbean nation does not seem prepared for such an invasion. A foreign operator could not finalise many of the reservations received, as most hotels in Havana and the tourist centre of Trinidad were fully occupied. Nor is there room availability in Santiago de Cuba in July, for the 500-year birthday of the city. “There are expectations for what happens, yes. The news of the conversations with the United States arrive, and people want to get to know the true Cuban culture,” said businessman Carlos Javier Rodríguez, director of Carimar Events, a tour operator based in Argentina. “There is interest in Cuba as it is known today”. Restaurants cannot serve all clients for lack of tables, and you cannot find room in Old Havana for the whole month of March. Roger Gauvin, a Canadian tourist, estimated that the demand will continue to outstrip the island’s installed capacity to receive visitors. “I see a lot of construction, beautiful restorations … that’s very good,” he said. “But there won’t be enough hotels. There won’t be enough restaurants. There won’t be enough services to accommodate all the Americans that will arrive”.
The renting out of private rooms and the domestic restaurants proliferated through the economic reforms by President Raul Castro, which could help ease the government-run hotels that handle 64,000 hotels rooms and sometimes lack basic supplies like shampoo, or the restaurants that stand out for their poor gastronomic offering. The airport of Havana, recently remodelled, will be expanded at a cost of $207 million, by the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht, which would suit US airlines for operating on the island since currently, flights between the US and Cuba are made by charter companies only.
So, what are you waiting for? Discover 5 of the top reasons to visit Cuba , one of the biggest tourist attractions of the planet: the prices will skyrocket soon, and the authentic tradition of the country is at risk. Pack your backpack as soon as you can and discover the magical Cuba.