This September, Hurricane Irma swept through parts of Cuba, leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. But on top of the immediate damage, the storm posed the threat of a second disaster: the possible loss of this winter’s tourist season. Up north, many travellers – particularly Canadians, who love visiting Cuba – were asking themselves: is it safe to visit Cuba this year?
The thought crossed my mind recently as I saw reports of people wading through the streets of Havana in the wake of the hurricane. My concern was heightened by the news that the U.S. State Department had advised Americans not go to the island. So I did a little research to see what the situation is. And happily, the news is good: despite our fears, many of Cuba’s popular tourist spots are already back in business, receiving tourists as usual. As well, Hurricane Nate, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast this past weekend, mostly missed Cuba, causing little major damage.
That’s not to say the whole island is back to normal. Hurricane Irma carved a path along the northern coast, causing major damage from Camaguey in the east to Havana in the west. The barrier islands off the north coast – places like Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Santa Maria and Playa Santa Lucia – were the worst hit, and will be out of commission till at least November, by most accounts. Varadero, Cuba’s premier beach spot, was also in Irma’s path, and is still recovering — though I’ve had reports that tourists are returning already.
For the rest of the island, though, the news is a lot better. Havana, despite taking serious damage from high waves and flooding, is already substantially recovered, according to the Viahero.com website. The malecon, or waterfront, is being repaired, the downtown streets have been cleared, and the government has prioritized repairs to tourist areas like old Havana. Camaguey and Holguin are expected to be back and operating this month as well.
After that, it’s pretty much business as usual. All the places on the south coast of the island, such as Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and Trinidad, escaped most of the storm damage and are open for the season. Pinar del Rio, the tobacco-growing area west of Havana, took a glancing blow from Hurricane Nate, but I’ve seen no reports of major damage. And according to reports, all the major airports are operating, including Varadero, so there’s no difficulty getting in or out.
Most of those reports come from people involved in the Cuban tourism industry, so it’s possible they could be overly optimistic. However, articles in the Miami Herald tell the same story. And Canada’s consular service reports no nationwide advisory for Cuba, though it advises avoiding all travel to Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria. What about the U.S. travel advisory? It seems more concerned with the mysterious health symptoms of American diplomats stationed on the island.
How did Cuba get back on its feet so quickly? According to travellers who were there, it’s all about pitching in. Cubans are experts at turning lemons into lemonade, so when the storm was over, they just came out and got to work. “It’s just the way it is in Cuba,” said a Dutch tourist who was there during the hurricane. “People who had nothing to do would be clearing the roads of debris, and then the government trucks would come and collect it soon after.”
Some parts of the island looked completely normal, she said. But “even in Havana, just 3 days after the storm hit we were sitting in cafés in the old part of town, watching plenty of other tourists enjoying the city …”
So, is it safe to visit Cuba this year? For the most part, the answer is yes – though not every part of Cuba, at least just yet. And if you do visit, there’s no doubt you’ll get a warm welcome. Many Cubans depend on tourism for their livelihoods — everyone from waiters and cab drivers to families who run paladars, or private restaurants, in their homes.
That said, if you’re planning a Cuban getaway, talk to your travel agent, or to others who’ve visited recently, to make sure the area you’re going to is safe and well serviced. Standing water can cause health problems like mould and mosquito infestations, but so far they haven’t become a major problem.
And of course, keep your eye on the long-range weather reports. Hurricane season lasts till November, and as this past weekend proved, a new tropical storm can pop up at any time. While the trouble may be over for this year, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.