Americans Are Flocking To Cuba, But Is The Island Ready?

Aug 24, 2016 | By Elena Sheppard
Americans Are Flocking To Cuba, But Is The Island Ready?
Photo: Age Fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo
An arial view of The Hotel Nacional in Havana.

In May the MV Adonia, the first cruise ship to sail across the Florida Straits from Miami to Cuba in more than 50 years, charted an easy path from continent to island and in doing so, set off a far more complicated journey into the unknown future of American tourism in Cuba.

Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West. For decades, this proximity yielded a booming tourist industry on the island, the destination treated by the American elite as something of a nearby exotic playground—a glamorous hub for hedonism just offshore. "Before the [Cuban] Revolution, Cuba was a top destination for Americans looking to indulge in pleasures restricted in the United States," Albert Laguna, an assistant professor in American studies at Yale University, told Cigar Aficionado. "Cuba was, in many ways, a canvas for the projection of American fantasies in the 1940s and '50s."

Then in 1959 Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries seized power. A few months later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed a near-full trade embargo on Cuba and cut off diplomatic ties, and in February of 1962, President John F. Kennedy levied a complete economic embargo with heavy restrictions on American travel to the island. The music and art, the legendary cigars and rum, the tropical weather, pristine beaches and architectural wonders were sealed tightly behind a door of American restriction.

Those limits stayed largely in place until December 2014, when President Obama announced a policy shift towards normalizing relations between the nations. While officially American tourism remains banned under the trade embargo, his changes expanded the possibilities for visiting Cuba providing 12 categories of legal entry for Americans. With the announcement came an outpouring of American desire to visit the island, most of the rhetoric centralizing around a want to "see Cuba before it changes."

American businesses, like Carnival Cruise Line, which operates the Adonia, are capitalizing on this demand. "There is pent-up demand to cruise there," Roger Frizzell, Carnival's chief communications officer, told Cigar Aficionado.

From 2014 to 2015, American visitors to the island rose 77 percent. In the first months of 2016, Cuba's Ministerio del Turismo reports that 94,000 U.S. citizens had already visited the island (for comparison, last year's total number of American tourists was 161,000). Cuban officials expect these numbers to grow.

"Ten years from now, Cuba will be among the most popular destinations in the world," said Peter Sanchez, founder and chief executive officer of Cuba Tours and Travel. "Cuba has everything, from thousands of miles of pristine beaches, hundreds of islands in untouched archipelagos surrounded by protected coral reefs, mountains, rivers, rain forests and many beautiful, historic, cosmopolitan cities with deep culture roots and contemporary entertainment and culinary scenes. You can't see Cuba in one trip. It is too big and there is just too much to see and do. Tourism in Cuba 10 years from now will be going strong and it will be all over the island—not just the western region."

Travelers in Havana
Photo: AP Photo/Desmond Boylan
A tour guide speaks to a group of travelers in Havana.

Experts and insiders are expressing concern that the island is nowhere near ready to keep pace with the surging influx of visitors, a number which will only grow with the introduction of regular flights and ferries from the U.S.—a change anticipated to go into effect this year.

Travel writer and Cuba expert Claire Boobbyer tells Cigar Aficionado that this year's expected increase in flights from the U.S. to Havana will put a heavy weight on Cuba's already overstretched infrastructure. "The rise in visitor numbers in general (not just American visitors) has seen hotels booked solid, bed and breakfasts booked out, private restaurants oversubscribed, and car hire prices soar." In addition to infrastructure issues, she also pointed to concerns of cultural impact. "Parts of Cuba are beginning to look like a theme park—I am thinking of tiny colonial Trinidad, which is currently overwhelmed by visitors." Boobbyer was also quick to add that the widespread concerns of cultural erosion by Americans are patronizing and misled, "France is one of the world's most visited countries yet no one talks about French culture suffering under the weight of visitors."

Though the island is trying to keep pace with the changes, the roughly 63,000 hotel rooms (many of them run by the state) are not enough to accommodate the growing number of tourists, and tour companies often recommend booking and planning months in advance. Many of the rooms are also now being reserved in bulk by high-end American tour groups able to snatch up a large number of accommodations, which leaves less rooms for individual travelers. Boobbyer said she's seen tourists in the popular town of Viñales have to sleep in the church plaza due to the lack of rooms. In Viñales, it is also reported that cabbies charge $10 per night for tourists to sleep in the backseat of their cars.

Still, Cuba is expecting to use tourism—and American tourism at that—as an economic pillar. Gaviota, the state-run tourism company, has plans to add 50,000 hotel rooms by 2020, with Havana as the top priority. Meanwhile American businesses, such as Starwood Hotel and Resorts and Airbnb, are also stepping in to try and close the gaps between supply and demand. Starwood is in the process of opening three hotels in Havana, and just recently opened the Four Points Havana; the first American hotel on the island since the revolution.

The American-founded online rental home marketplace Airbnb is also capitalizing on the Cuba opportunity. Since their launch on the island in 2015, they have accrued 5,000 listings across 40 different cities. "This is faster than in any other market in company history," the company's regional director for Latin America, Jordi Torres, told Cigar Aficionado. Additionally, the financial opportunities for Cubans listing properties on Airbnb are astronomical. Where the average monthly income on the island is around $26, those listing properties on the website are often able to earn $25 per day.

Rooms are not the only necessity in high demand and low supply, experts are also concerned about the ability of privately owned restaurants (called paladares) to have enough food, water and gas to accommodate the flood of American tourists. WiFi is also infamously hard to find on the island.

For Cubans, the American tourist is also a new profile of visitor. "U.S. travelers aren't used to hearing ‘no' or getting less than high-level service if they are paying for it," said Sanchez. "This is a new profile of tourist in Cuba, but Cubans have a remarkable way of evolving quickly and rising to the occasion. They aren't ready now, but it isn't to say that they aren't moving in that direction."

Miami-bound passengers at José Martí International Airport
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Miami-bound passengers have their tickets checked as they prepare to board a charter plane at José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba.

As for the island's airports, they are also underprepared for the surge in flights heading their way. It is not unusual to spend hours in the airport after landing at Havana's José Martí International Airport, due to a lack of necessary equipment like stairs and luggage conveyors.

The strain on resources is particularly acute in Havana and will continue to be so. While Cuba has channeled resources into building beach resorts popular amongst Europeans, the island's cities have received less touristic preparation. This becomes a problem for American tourists who are still prohibited from vacation-style visits—like beach holidays—to the island. "There's an overwhelming focus on building thousands of rooms on Cuba's stunning beaches," Boobbyer said. "It's as if the government is slow to recognize the cultural and natural value of anything in the interior." Experts say it will be years before Havana is able to adequately absorb the influx of people.

The American rush to Cuba seems to be a desire to see Cuba before Americans rush to see Cuba. "For many, [the] narrative of Cuba remains appealing," said Laguna. "Think of the success of the Buena Vista Social Club in the 1990s playing old Cuban standards. You couldn't get coffee at Starbucks without hearing them. Walk into any Cuban restaurant in your local town and the décor will likely reflect this fantasy of pre-revolutionary Cuba: plenty of sepia prints of smoldering Cuban cigars and the Tropicana Club. Seeing that fantasy Cuba today is certainly part of the draw and informs the idea of a place ‘frozen in time.' "

The concern amongst American travelers is largely that these sepia-hued mojitos on the Malecón and classic Chevrolets trundling through the old city streets will dissipate with a growth in the island's economy as influenced by the U.S. "It is common to hear people say that they ‘want to see Cuba before it changes'—before Starbucks and McDonald's appear on every corner," Laguna said. "This captures a certain degree of American arrogance. The Cuban government has done business with privately owned business all over the world. Tourists from Canada and Europe have been streaming into the island for decades. To think that things are going to change so rapidly overestimates American influence and underestimates the Cuban government's tight control over the terms of foreign investment."

In a harkening back to pre-Revolution Cuba, one American group finding its way easily to the island is the rich and famous. Beyoncé and Jay Z have visited, as did the Kardashians, and recently Chanel hosted a fashion show on Havana's iconic Paseo del Prado boulevard. All of these visits were, at least photographically, defined by the nostalgia-infused dream version of Havana, a version of Havana that John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, calls an "amusement park of decay."

There is a vast amount of work to be done, both in terms of infrastructure and political policy, to take Cuba and America into the next phase of their relationship. While American visitors expect both a certain set of standards and nostalgia, Cuba must work overtime to meet those needs. They need to "import more hire cars, establish more coach service routes, train better guides, and build more hotels and convert old buildings for accommodation in cities and rural environments," Boobbyer told Cigar Aficionado.

There is also the reality that as the novelty of access to the island wears off, Cuba will become a tourist destination for different reasons. "The Cubans have always said that they are at the center of the universe," Boobbyer said. "I actually think that the increased visitor numbers will strengthen that position. Cubans can now demonstrate—on their doorstep—what they have always known: that their music, their art, their dance, their literature, their architectural beauty, their seas and lush landscapes, and their human beauty and character is world class."

"My guess is that people will be increasingly attracted to Cuba for ecotourism and Havana's buzzing art and culture scene," Laguna says. "There is much more to Cuba than '57 Chevys and men in linen shirts singing love songs."

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