Friday, December 19, 2014

What is the future of tourism in Cuba?

Mountainous landscape in Cuba; green, fertile valley is
prime land for agriculture
Almost two years ago, Larry and I participated in a people-to-people excursion to Cuba, one of the first that allowed U.S. citizens to visit the island country that has been off limits for more than half a century. We’re of a age to remember Cuba prior to Fidel Castro’s takeover in the 1960s and the horrors that people these have endured for many decades. So the opportunity to get an early, legal look at the previously-embargoed country was of great interest to me.
Americans currently may visit beaches on the southern shore
but not the finer resorts on the northern shore (since we're traveling
for cultural or educational purposes--not as tourists)
We traveled with International Expeditions, one of the U.S. companies licensed to bring Americans into Cuba. Itineraries had to pass Cuban discretion; and the Cuban government still determined which hotels we would stay at and where we were allowed to visit. We were not considered “tourists” and did not have the freedom to wander at our leisure; many areas were off-limits. Still it was an interesting and enlightening trip that I’m glad we took when we did.

Collecting and selling wild oranges
provides additional
income for poor Cuban farmers.
Now President Obama has announced that the U.S. is renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Travel is still limited, and we don’t know if restrictions will be lifted any time soon. Even though some of the educational and cultural visits have come under controversy (seems not all really accomplished the purpose under which they were licensed), it’s almost a given that the reins will continue to loosen. That goes for embargoed products, too.
The travel industry is now ramping up efforts to get permission to fly and sail to the island country. Travel companies expect a bonanza if Americans are allowed to travel as they wish, whether from curiosity or because Cuba has lovely beaches and mountains. Of course, at the present time, the infrastructure would have a hard time accommodating a large influx of tourists.
The tobacco industry is a mainstay of Cuban economy,
although cigars are still embargoed in the U.S.
How will increased tourism affect the average Cuban citizen? Will Cubans benefit with an improved standard of living, or will the government continue to control everything from salaries to what locals can buy and where and how they can travel?
Farm equipment is old and outdated like this tractor that is
still in use at a tobacco farm we visited. Russian parts keep
the tractor running--when those are available.
Since the U.S. is now negotiating with the Castro regime (Fidel, Raul, and their hand-picked successors), will the political repression ever end? Old-timers are not as enthusiastic about what the Obama administration is doing as are younger people who have no recollection of hardships the Cuban people have endured. Diplomacy can mean many things, but I don’t expect democracy to gain a foot-hold any time soon.

One of four main squares in Havana. Many of the buildings
are in severe disrepair, but new hotels are also
springing up. Increased tourism would require much more
than is currently available.
Visiting Cuba was eye-opening for me, a U.S. citizen. I can only hope that restoring diplomatic relations is the first step in actually rebuilding this historically important and naturally beautiful country. I can only hope this portends better times for everyone in Cuba, not just the privileged few.
Old and modern shops provide goods
for wealthier Cubans.
If you’re interested in getting in on historic changes, check out tours through the following organizations, which currently offer legal travel to Cuba:

Insight Cuba, 800-450-2822
National Geographic Expeditions, 888-966-8687

Common Ground Education and TravelServices, 412-203-1125
International Expeditions, 855-231-6866
Friendly Planet Travel, 888-555-5765

Cuba Education Tours 888-965-5647
Smithsonian Journeys, 855-330-1542
National Trust for Historic Preservation, 888-484-8785

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


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