When I traveled to Cuba this past January, I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Being well traveled and of mixed Caribbean heritage, I tend not to exoticize destinations or people, but Cuba is something onto itself — a “gema,” or gem — and I wanted to see if we Americans were scratching its surface beyond repair, as we often do in unexplored places. A travel and tourism expert and scholar both shared how Americans are handling themselves abroad, and what changes lie ahead for Cuban tourism.
This audio feature is part of a larger story about Americans, Cuban tourism and vintage cars. Read the full story and watch a video about Alli Joseph's travels in Cuba.
Dr. Jukka Laitamaki is a professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism, and author of the recent publication “Sustainable Tourism Development Frameworks and Best Practices: Implications for Cuban Tourism Industry." Since 2014, Dr. Laitamaki has traveled with his students for 10 days every spring to Cuba as part of their semester long-intensive on Cuban tourism. This way, they may observe the challenges of building a tourist industry there empirically.
Jukki Laitamaki: Everything is government controlled. You have 201 categories currently where you can be an entrepreneur. The two most important ones for tourism are "casas particulares," which is a B&B and "paladares," which is a private restaurant, and those are growing. Especially in places like Viñales and Trinidad, you have a lot of those new small family companies.
When we deal with the government, who owns all the hotels, the bus companies, the restaurants, there is a slow change. In the planning cycle, it takes a while for the tourism industry to adapt.
There is a Caribbean tourism council framework for sustainability, and [in our paper] we wanted to see if Cuba is really implementing those different categories. And we discovered they have done a lot of progress, and that sometimes a good thing is when you have control. Control over the environment, so you can't have a private enterprise come in and take over all the beaches and develop them. There are hardly any high-rises. Cuba has 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites — for the size of that country, it's big. There are no other Caribbean countries where you have so many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. So cultural tourism is a big opportunity for the Cuban people. That was one of the conclusions [of the study]: that Cuba should continue to preserve the history and the culture.
It's not perfect, they still have a lot to do — things are very bureaucratic. I'm not surprised. I have met American executives running American-owned hotels in Cuba, and they are getting frustrated, because dealing with Cuban government on the other side, it's not like business to business. There is a lot of red tape, and things go slow. But on the other hand, the Cubans understand there is a threat; Americans come once, but they never return if the service is not on par with other Caribbean [places], if the infrastructure is not there, and it's a real challenge. They might be playing a catch-up game.
April Springer is a destination manager for International Expeditions, one of the largest U.S. travel companies. She’s been focusing on Cuba since 2013, and has taken 12 trips there since, each with their own surprises.
April Springer: My very first trip to Cuba in June of 2014, we landed in a teeny tiny little airport in Camaguey, which is about mid way down the island, and I remember landing and looking out the window and there were no jetways, just this tiny metal building. We exited the plane, down some stairs down onto the tarmac, and had to walk about half a mile to the airport.
Tourism rates have spiked 34 percent in the past year, with 614,000 Americans visiting in 2016, up from 2015, when a total of 3.1 million people visited Cuba. According to a 2017 Travel Leaders group survey, the first response travelers gave when asked why they wanted to visit Cuba, was “right away before Cuba changes dramatically.”
Springer: The boom in tourism to Cuba has impacted us in several ways as a company. So price increases have been just insane, 70 to 80 percent year over year, which is not typical in the industry. Usually you see five to 10. It's been a challenge just to get good hotels, make restaurant reservations, and then dealing with the price increases.
Specifically with Cuba, you get really a mixed bag of reviews. You have some [tourists] who go and they expect it to be like a Puerto Rico, a Jamaica, the Bahamas, and for them it's totally different, they had no idea what they were getting into, and then you have those who expect so little and come back with, you know, this new-found appreciation of these people and what they do for each other and for the stranger, the American stranger, and how open and kind and appreciative they are. I know me personally when I went in 2014 I was welcomed with open arms, and that's just the Cuban way. They really personify the idealism behind socialism and communism, they really take care of each other, it's really watching out for your neighbor, taking care of your neighbor. Which can sometime come across as — you find someone who sends you to a restaurant because they are going to get a kickback, or sells you cigars because they're going to get a kickback, but that's how they take care of each other and that's their way of life. You have to step back and think about it. These people make an average of $30 U.S. dollars a month, to work an entry-level job, they have to do what they have to do to survive. And that's how they've made it for the last 60 years.
So large hotel group investors are poking around Cuba, but there’s still only one main bus system, with just a few buses a day – and if you don’t get on, I found, you might be sleeping in the bus station. I asked Springer what her travel tips were for American travelers, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Springer: Number one, don't forget to pack your toilet paper, because you do not want to get stranded in a public bathroom, and that's a very real possibility in Cuba. Don't forget to pack your cash. You still cannot use your U.S. credit cards. There's actually one that will work in Cuba, but there are no point of sales systems in Cuba, so while you may go armed with your credit card, there is nowhere to use it!
You definitely want to do your research — Cuba is NOT a tiny island. I have people ask all the time to visit 10 different cities, and I explain that 10 different cities will take 13 days to visit. They don't realize how big Cuba is.
You should really consider your travel style. Cuba has so much to offer in the way of accommodations, vehicles, tours, experiences. If you just go down there willy nilly, you really may not make the best of your time in Cuba, and can get very overwhelmed, very quickly.
My last travel tip for Cuba is to go with an open mind. Just take it for what it is. Don't try to change it. Don't try to make it better, and appreciate what these people have done to survive for the last 60 years.
Laitamaki: I have been in 56 countries, and I have to say that Cubans are one of the most hospitable people. Their attitude is really that they want people to understand them, learn from them, and share these experiences. Curiosity is definitely one. Be sensitive of the issue that it is a society where there are controls, so there are things that people don't feel comfortable talking about. For instance, now people talk about Fidel because he passed away, but his name is holy, you need to respect that, and this country took a different history than America. Respect and curiosity are the most important things. I think Americans will be very surprised how welcome they are. The Cubans welcome Americans.
Like all gems, Cuba is tough but fragile. It is in danger of being scratched, or over-polished, but mostly needs to find a balance between tourism and tradition.
Springer: Everything in Cuba is going to change, and my advice to my travelers who call and they want to go is, you need to go. They are coming slow, but they are coming. Even Cuba from 2014 to 2017, when I was there last month, there's already a change.