Can U.S. citizens visit Cuba freely, now that President Barack Obama has made his historic visit to the island nation? If you watched the coverage surrounding the visit this week, you might get the impression that the way is clear for the great influx of American tourists. But while that time is getting closer, the real answer is: not yet.
In December, 2014, I wrote a post called Visit Cuba now: things are going to change. In it, I advised travellers from Canada and other countries to see the real Cuba before a huge wave of American tourists hits its shores, bringing HBO, Starbucks and Kentucky Fried Chicken with them.
A year and a half later, that wave hasn’t quite hit. On my visit in December, there were more Americans around, but things looked much the same as on my last visit. So there’s still time to see the island’s unique and wonky culture before it changes irreversibly, for better or worse. But little by little, over the past few months, we’ve seen changes that suggest the stage is being set for the great deluge.
The first relaxation of the U.S. embargo in 2014 (sometimes called the Cuban Thaw) allowed tour groups to travel to Cuba from the United States for any of 12 specified reasons — things like professional meetings, educational projects and “support for the Cuban people”.
This month, those rules have been relaxed again, allowing these people to travel without written permission. As well, some U.S. visitors won’t need to travel in a group: individual travellers can now make “people to people” visits for educational purposes. It’s not a licence for a Cuban vacation, though: Americans can still only travel for the same 12 reasons, and they’re required to have a full itinerary — no free time for lying on the beach.
But there are others things happening, things that foreshadow a bigger thaw to come. In February, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement to re-establish scheduled air services between the two countries. U.S. airlines will be able to operate up to 110 round-trip flights daily to 10 different airports in Cuba: applications are being sought from interested airlines.
As well, Carnival Corp. announced this week that its Fathom cruise line — which specializes in voluntourism — has approval from the Cuban government to start running regular cruises to the island, the first U.S. cruises to Cuba in 50 years. Carnival’s 704-passenger Adonia (not the ship shown here) will start cruising on May 1, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
Hotel companies are getting into the act, too. Starwood has signed a deal to manage two Havana hotels, the Quinta Avenida and the Inglaterra, under its own brands. And Airbnb, which launched in Cuba last year, is now well established.
And hot off the presses, Google has secured permission for a demonstration project in Havana, offering free internet at speeds 70 times faster than Cubans have ever seen. Once they get a taste of that, there’ll be no turning back. With new deals to allow U.S. companies to bring in telecom equipment, the days of slow, hard-to-find internet in Cuba may finally be over. (In fact, on my trip in December I found the internet service already much better than during my last visit, though still hard to find.)
So, can U.S. citizens visit Cuba freely? Not yet. But it’s obvious things are being readied for a real opening of the door to U.S. tourism. And some Americans aren’t waiting for that day. For years, they’ve been coming in through the back door, flying to Cuba from Canada and Mexico. Since the thaw began, the number of visitors — official and unofficial — has taken off. According to the Cuban government, nearly 145,000 Americans visited the country last year, a 79-percent increase over 2014.
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They’re arriving in lots of different ways, too. Boaters are taking advantage of the relaxed travel restrictions to sail their yachts to Cuba; last year a $3-million, 78-foot yacht from Key West cruised into Havana’s harbour. And boats from Florida are set to take part in this year’s Ernest Hemingway fishing tournament, one of the city’s great traditions (the 1956 edition is shown at right).
Is there still time to see Cuba before it changes? I think so. It’s a good bet that there will be more eased restrictions in the months to come (you can follow them as they happen on this website). But it seems that neither the U.S. nor Cuba is ready to let the stampede begin. There are still real differences between the two governments, and it’s obvious from the recent press conferences that the Cuban government still has an ingrained resistance to a major U.S. presence in its country.
As well, it’s not clear whether Cuba’s tourist infrastructure — the hotels, the transport systems, the amenities — is ready yet for an extra million or so American tourists. As most Canadians can tell you, travel in Cuba is mostly a matter of taking what you can get. The food is still mostly basic and bland, getting around can be difficult, and if you’re looking for theme parks and big shopping malls, forget it.
So if you’re Canadian or European, it’s probably safe to make your travel plans for next winter. And if you’re American, this is a good time to plan a cultural trip, or to book a flight from Toronto or Vancouver. You can still see Cuba as it is, and may never be again.