Americans traveling to Cuba usually travel with the intent of helping the Cuban people. Recent data acquired from Cuba indicate that the current hotel rooms available on the island total 64798 hotel rooms. However, a seldom released figure is that of casa particulars or home stays, often the preferred accommodation route for Americans visiting Cuba, over the past 3 years, these home stay rooms have increased exponentially with 6115 rooms now being offered by private Cuban citizens to visiting tourists in 2013. Another figure that is startling, is the amount of private restaurants in Cuba which this year totals 2242 licensed private restaurants in Cuba. Raul Castro´s push to open the private sector seems to be firmly underway, as numbers of entrepreneurial Cubans increase exponentially across the island.
Americans visiting Cuba also tend to travel around more than visitors from other nations. Canadians being the most sedate visitors to the island, they tend to stay not only in one location but, also visit All-inclusive Hotels and seldom leave the confines of their chosen Cuban Hotel. The recent increase in American visitors is spurring a rethink of accommodations. The Cuban tourism ministry MINTUR is worried that any further easing of US travel restrictions to the island could leave many of their staple markets such as Canada, United Kingdom and Russia without enough rooms. Recent transcripts of speeches made by Manuel Marrero, Cuba´s tourism minister, indicate that the authorities are taking action now to increase hotel room numbers to 85,000 rooms by 2020 and casa particular numbers to 9000 rooms.
Other figures from Transtur, Cuba´s main Car Rental Company, show that the numbers of Americans who rent cars far exceeds the average percentage of any other nationality. So, while American visitors to Cuba are still counted in the 10´s of thousands, the amount who rent cars is extremely high.
Old Havana Hotels continue to be the main choice for Americans looking for Hotels stays in Cuba. Obviously, this is directly related to the people-to-people Cuba trips currently favored by Americans because Old Havana offers the most varied selection of locations where these programs can visit. Of course, tourist locations such as Varadero or Cayo Santa Maria, while popular with international visitors, are still largely devoid of the Cuban Culture Americans search. Furthermore, these purely tourist enclaves are difficult to match with People-to-People trips to the island.
As numbers of Americans visiting Cuba slowly increases, allied to possible further concessions by the Obama administration, it will be interesting to see if Americans gravitate to beach vacations like their Canadian neighbors or, whether they stick to a more culturally rich travel agenda as is the case today.
The recent hullabaloo concerning the vacation of Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z in Cuba has disturbed an apparent wasp nest of critics & hardliners in South Florida. Yet, the list of US stars who have visited Cuba in recent years is mind bogglingly long, including such celebrities as; Jack Nicholson, Woody Harrelson, Danny Glover, Stewart Copeland, Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Sean Penn, James Caan, Bonnie Raitt, Montell Jordan, Michael Franti, Amy Ray & Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls) and countless other American singers, musicians, actors, sports stars and celebrities have visited Cuba.
So why can all these fellow Americans visit Cuba yet you can’t? It’s probably more your belief you “can’t” than actual rules that prohibit your trip these days. If your trip is associated with academic research of any type, you automatically qualify for what is known as a “general license”. The general license is also known as the “paperless” permit to visit Cuba. It is called this because American visitors to Cuba who are traveling for academic reasons do not need to pursue any specific permit from the United States Treasury Department (OFAC) so long as they document their trip and, it be for a demonstrable academic reason. Obviously, if you are visiting Cuba to add Cuba related content to your blog or you decide to write an unpublished paper outlining your trip, then this falls under “academic” and as such requires no license. In fact, thousands of Americans are visiting Cuba for research purposes, one could easily consider any trip to any nation as research, right?
On the other hand, there are the people-to-people permits, recently brought into the spotlight due to the fact that Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z visited Cuba under the auspices of such a license. The Cuba People-to-People license must include contact with the Cuban population (pretty difficult not to do that right?) and spending time at cultural venues, listening to Cuban music or wandering around the Old Town of Havana. Probably sounds great to you? What else would you want to do? I mean a few Mojitos and Cuban Rum is not prohibited on these trips, neither are Cuban Cigars as Jay-Z proudly showed us in the press photos during his visit. So, was the Beyonce and Jay-Z´s visit the Obama administrations way of telling us that basically any American can visit the island if they mix into their trip some of the things we all do on vacation anyway? Sightseeing, listening to music and meeting the locals? It could be that the high profile visit of this star couple and the fact that they are personal friends of both Barack and Michelle Obama, may not be mere coincidence. The visit to Cuba of this couple has undoubtedly generated more publicity than all of the previous US celebrities who have visited the island in recent years. After all, does anybody remember when Bill Murray visited the island?
As more Americans are deciding to visit Cuba either through General License qualification or people-to-people trips, it’s becoming obvious that the stigma surrounding such a trip is losing ground. Also, what constitutes academic research is so broad that, presumably, almost anyone can qualify, so long as they make their research known to at least one other person…
Yes, it would appear that “travel to Cuba” and “American” can now be pronounced in the same sentence without much fanfare. The caveat is, these days, no McCarthy hearings or FBI visit will follow your trip.
So, unless your Beyonce or Jay-Z, it’s quite probable that you have little to worry about, providing you adhere to the aforementioned tremendously vague guidelines.
The recent trend of high profile Americans visiting recently don’t get much bigger than the star couple Beyonce and Jay-Z in Cuba. Dining at the La Guarida paladar restaurant in Old Havana with their mothers, they later wandered around the old town and colonial old city causing quite a stir with Cuban school children.
While Jay-Z is not a popular music star in Cuba, Beyonce is well known and she saw many of her CD´s being bootlegged in Cuba´s capital. Music stores selling western music are totally absent on the communist island. Beyonce and Jay-Z are visiting the island on a cultural exchange visa also know as a people-to-people visa.
There trip was organized ahead of time but was kept secret. The motive for the trip was their 5th wedding anniversary. The couple was married in Paris 4th April 2008 and decided that this year would be the big island south of Florida.
There trip will take them to Cayo Santa Maria, a remote island recently opened to tourism offering 5 star hotels on Cuba´s pristine white sand beaches.
Both Jay Z and Beyonce have visited the Cristo (Christ) statue which overlooks the bay of Havana and also visited the cathedral square and bodegita del medio bar.
Staff at the privately owned La Guarida restaurant said that Beyonce was interested in past stars like Jack Nicholson who have been to the restaurant and browsed photos of other American personalities who have dined there.
We are told the trip organized by Havanatur and an American agency Insight is said to have been the most anticipated trip for some time for the couple who have travelled the world but never to Cuba.
As numbers of Americans visiting Cuba increases, the embargo and travel ban seem to be eroding into a distant distraction seldom respected, even by travelers of this caliber.
The reelection of president Obama and the recent senate approval of John Kerry to replace outgoing secretary of state Hilary Clinton are boosting American travel to Cuba with numbers not even seen during the Clinton era. One American interviewed at Cancun airport before their ongoing departure flight to Havana´s Jose Marti said “it’s never been easier, under Bush I´d come once a year and be watching my back, these days nobody cares”. It seems that the general consensus is one of complete lack of interest in sanctions and the sentiment that complete relaxation of the travel ban is on its way.
Upon our arrival in Havana we headed out to the Bodeguita del Medio, the famed bar just off the main square in Old Havana. Hoards of people were coming in and out of the place and almost immediately we picked up on two southern US accents. A couple of students in their mid 20´s from Louisiana had decided that it was time for them to visit Cuba. Yes, not on student visas nor doing any research, just here, wandering around the crumbling buildings and having pre spring break, break.
At the Hotel Nacional we found yet more Americans while sipping a daiquiri on the lush garden terrace behind the hotel. Of course, we are not suggesting we met hundreds of Americans but the difference is palpable.
Cuba´s Ministry of Tourism have also declared that 2013 will be their best year yet since the communist island first started welcoming foreign tourists again in the early 90´s when funding from the Ex Soviet Union dried up almost overnight. However, tourism appears to be a means to end for Mr. Castro, a shrewd bet on foreign tourist dollars, yens, rubles and pounds to replace lost income from the islands aforementioned past benefactor. The delicate situation of Venezuela’s Chavez is also street talk in Cuba today. Cuban´s of all ages voicing their opinions and worry of what will happen if Chavez´s brotherly gestures of free oil and financial aid abruptly ends. There is real worry.
For the first time in decades there´s a real prospect and sentiment that US tourism dollars could be on their way, a sort of uncalculated capital injection which will fortify the “revolution” for another 5 decades or more. And Raul Castro´s government is doing all it can to spur such an influx in a massive but subtle way. Just recently the dollar exchange rate was de-penalized and the 10% fine for changing USD eliminated. A clear sign that the government not only wants more greenbacks but that they are gunning for a new market they no longer feel easy penalizing. Secondly we have the odd move to remove all taxes on phone calls between the US and Cuba. We´re betting that this too was to promote increased contact between the two nations and the invariable rapprochement of personal ties this will no doubt incur. Even Havanatur, recently present in the New York travel trade fair, made bashful projections concerning their new VIP services for affluent (American?) tourists. Cuban official clearly know that their current room accommodation numbers and hotels would burst under any type of US travel relaxation and thus are looking to take Cuba as a destination up market, essentially meaning fewer tourists bringing more money. Rates on all hotels have quietly been raised this year too, Melia Hotels for instance, being ordered by their Cuban partners to raise rates by anything between 20 and 40% on most hotels. Yes, the sentiment is that the very soon there´ll be more tourists than available rooms and Cuba is getting ready right now.
For many Americans, now could be the time to visit Cuba. Rates are still within the ballpark of most pockets and Cuba is still in the midst of a financial meltdown which always makes for a budget vacation. There´s also the fact that Cuba is still Cuba at present but will it be that way once travel restrictions to the island are relaxed? Probably not.
See you in Havana!
La Guarida is a Paladar located in Havana owned and run by Enrique Nuñez and his wife Odeisys. The paladar is one of the oldest in Cuba having been opened in the 90´s and staying permanently open throughout all these years. Besides the excellent food on offer, ranging from the classic Rice & Black Beans synonymous with Cuba to more exotic dishes, La Guarida will definitely please any palate.
Amongst famous visitors, who´s images appear to be strewn about all of the walls, you´ll be dining in the place frequented by the likes of Beyonce Knowles, Bill Murray, Sean Penn, James Caan & Jay-Z, all of whom have dined at this restaurant.
La Guarida Paladar is also famous in Cuban popular culture due to it having been the central film location of the Cuban movie Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry & Chocolate) directed by the critically acclaimed directors Tomás Gutiérrez Alea y Juan Carlos Tabío.
This is an elegant Paladar in Havana in an ideal setting, although rather expensive compared to others, the visit is well worth it after sampling the special cuisine which will surprise the most exigent clients.
The La Guarida name originates from a series on Brasilian TV and a colloquial slang term to designate private cuban restaurants.
Opened in July, 1996 at a fabulous building dating from the early 20th Century, the exclusive atmosphere will certainly have you longing to return to this luxury privately owned Cuban restaurant called La Guarida.
This week president Obama has taken the unusual initiative to make it clear to Raul Castro that, with some change in Cuba, he is willing to talk business.
Havanatur, Cuba´s largest operator is looking on wide eyed at the prospects of millions of Americans visiting Cuba should the travel restrictions. Already Havanatur has captured the US market with the so called “people to people” American visitors, essentially a method to visit Cuba under a license which requires visitors to maintain a strict schedule without a typical leisure schedule including beaches and sea. Basically, generalized tourism is still forbidden but, those who qualify are able to visit in groups which do anything from Salsa classes to photographic tours to hospital visits. All is good so long as there´s an education angle attached and there is plenty of contact with the Cuban people (hence the people (Cuban) to people accolade)
Many Americans are rushing to try and see Cuba now, a sort of forbidden fruit type visit which will intrigue friends and family. The typical “oh really you went to Cuba??” brigade. However, these Cuba people to people exchanges are not without drawback, first up is the price…One recent trip this December was advertised at over $2000 for 5 nights stay in Havana without flight! Yes, a $400 hotel stay and a few bus rides doled out to our unwitting fellow countrymen at a massive profit for the organizers. But, those takers who can afford it say they don´t regret it, offering explanations of being “first in” as the carrot for what is an incredibly inflated price. Those Americans who are traveling to Cuba anyway, those who visit on the so called “general license” which requires no paperwork, and you just go, are seeing the real Cuba also but paying $400 for their hotel rather than $2000. So what gives? Well, first off, those who are visiting without applying are doing so under the “general license” a vague category catering for people who must be academics of some sort. They must be carrying out research but this is so broad that basically anyone can go it seems. Starting a blog about Cuba and then going to obtain factual information for your blog would appear to be just fine, as it could be deemed as “research”? So are the options limitless…?
Havanatur managed to capture this nascent US market by forcing the hand of Cuba´s tourism ministry to ban local foreign operators from selling to Americans but, also, a little known 1963 US law called “trading with the enemy” preempted Cuba´s Tourism ministry anyway, because “trading with the enemy” levies massive fines on Americans who purchase travel services from what are deemed “nationals of Cuba” or more specifically those foreign or Cuban companies and travel agencies with an address and phone numbers on the island.
So what could Obama´s administration have in mind for Cuba? Well, almost certainly a broadening of the current travel rules to allow more Americans to visit Cuba, although, we think it’s a long shot that travel restrictions be completely lifted. Who knows? Obama won the latino vote and a big chunk are Cubans so maybe he feels convinced that change with Cuba could be a big plus historically for his presidency?
Forums we scoured to get the low down on Americans who have already visited Cuba offer contrasting views on their visits to the forbidden island. A great percentage vow that while the trip was intriguing, they wouldn´t probably return, a big blow for Cuba´s aspirations of American tourism as the backbone to repair its ailing economy. On the other hand, and especially with frequent visitors who are “going it alone” (general license) there appears to be a mystique that brings them back time and time again. We think Cuban tourism officials will be happy with this “happy medium” however.
Will Obama do it? Only time will tell.
Hurricane Sandy in Cuba
As I write this column, after arriving home this weekend and, after yet another overwhelming storm on our east coast, despite planning for the worst, my family and I have emerged unscathed while thousands of homes in Cuba are still without power and water following the wrath of Hurricane Sandy in Cuba.
Although I was lucky and missed the eye of the storm, I got a good taste of Hurricane Sandy in Cuba as I was in Varadero last week.
On our drive back from Havana in our tiny Cuban Rent A Car Thursday, the storm was brewing. The ocean was irritated, transferring tides of seawater across the roads and flooding the streets. Locals marooned in the rain fruitlessly huddled under umbrellas as family pets ran toward the comfort of home.
Returning to the Tryp Peninsula resort, the maids worked untiringly to sweep out water that had snuck its way into the lobby as they loathed in Spanish over Hurricane Sandy in Cuba
The hallways were soaked and the power went off and on throughout the night. It was probably the only evening vacationers weren’t sampling the country’s rum and cigars in the disco.
Instead, we were stuck up in our hotel rooms, hoping and praying that nothing would break and fly through the windows. I had premeditated to lock myself in the bathroom until the vicious storm was over.
Fortunately I didn’t resort to that, but my Cuban girlfriend and her parents had to put her survivor skills to the test. She had hopped off her bed and slipped, with a rude realization that her floor was soaked. Water had seeped into her third-floor room from the outside and her windows were shaking uncontrollably. After pushing her belongings into the bathroom and closet, and a few slips and falls in the pitch-dark hallways, she made her way to the safety of my room.
“Hurricane Sandy in Cuba devastation”
Sadly, not everyone made it home in Cuba; 16 people died across the island. Roofs caved in, roads were destroyed and livestock was lost. In Santiago, mass was held in the street after churches were wiped out. Our tour guide on the return trip to Havana´s Jose Marti Airport said one of the company’s employees had gone fishing for red snapper after the hurricane since they’re abundant after such storms. He’s been missing since. He also updated passengers on our bus about other Hotels Hurricane Sandy in Cuba such as the Meliá Santiago de Cuba, Versailles, Casa Granda, Villa Colibri, Sierra Mar and Rancho Club with fallen ceiling structures, damaged false ceilings, sheds, awnings, landscaping, electrical and fresh water networks, glassware, solar heaters and beaches severely eroded. He also said that Hotel Bucanero was completely destroyed…
It got me thinking how lucky I am to live in Maryland, where such storms usually dissipate before reaching us.
In New York, the colleges and universities were closed and Wall Street remained closed for the second consecutive day. Our east coast is water logged and badly beaten but, as usual, FOX news is back to the elections as if nothing happened.
I bet the people of Cuba are still reeling in the wake of the disaster though
Hurricane Sandy in Cuba 2012
Cuba Photos 2012
Various American visitors have provided some VERY recent 2012 Cuba Photos so these are hot off the press should we say…
Many are astounded on just how these Cuba Photos display the lack of maintenance in Cuba. These Cuba Photos show that besides certain areas of Old Havana most buildings are in serious states of neglect and some look totally dangerous. The mystique of Cuba Travel for Americans though, appears to be this exact state of decay and the crumbling architecture shown in these Cuba photos. Enjoy!
“These Cuba Photos show Havana as a crumbling city”
These Cuba Photos were taken between July and October 2012 so you´ll get an idea of what Cuba looks like now, straight through the lens of fellow Americans who have provided these Cuba Photos in 2012.
Tip: Run your mouse over the images for the descriptions. Click image for full size view
Cuba Photos 2012
Interested in finding out what’s going on in Cuba during your stay there? Find seasonal info here on festivals, exhibits, conventions, concerts, and more. The guide cover Havana and other major cities and Cuba Events in general
Download the latest Havana events schedule
Sponsored by: Cuba Travel USA
Cuba People to People Travel
Why it is happening, nobody is sure. But the Cuba People to People travel program touted so highly by President Obama in 2011 is coming to a screeching halt, drowning in paperwork and non-renewed licenses for travel organizations.
Almost no organizations that got licenses from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last year to for Cuba People to People Travel to sponsor trips to Cuba have received renewals. Cuba People to People Travel Trips that were advertised have been scrapped. Organizations are left to wait without any updates or information.
“We work with about 30 different non-profit organizations that have programs to Cuba in next 12 months, and 100% of them have not received renewals of licenses,” said Jim Friedlander, president of Academic Arrangements Abroad in New York, a travel service provider, late Tuesday.
He said that the practical effect of OFAC’s lack of activity is that it disrupts the entire People to People program.
To me, this is contrary to the whole purpose of the president’s 2011 loosening of travel for Americans to Cuba and more specifically his efforts concerning Cuba People to People Travel.
Because of the outdated U.S. embargo against Cuba that makes it illegal for Americans to travel there, most Americans have never been to Cuba unless on a family or religious visa. The People to People cultural travel program finally allowed thousands of regular travelers to visit last year and early this year, interacting with Cubans in a meaningful way.
But in May, the OFAC application for a license to operate trips under Cuba People to People Travel grew from 6 pages to essentially hundreds of pages. Organizations seeking renewal had to document every minute of every day for every single trip they had done in the past year to prove that they were doing “People to People” activities and not tourism.
Then, most of them heard nothing. Weeks and months passed. Licenses lapsed. Since OFAC is notoriously closed-mouth about its work and does not make public its list of licences, applicants have been able to get little information. But gradually they realized they were all in the same predicament.
The U.S. Treasury press office on Tuesday did email me a comment from Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing: “We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses. We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses. We receive numerous such requests which are being handled in turn. It is our goal to respond in a timely matter.’’
I think this is approximately one paragraph more information than all the organizations waiting for their renewals have gotten from his office.
The thing that alarms me most is that the groups I’ve talked to seem intimidated and scared. Those awaiting licenses for are afraid of going public with their concern, worried that if they seem to be complaining about months of delays that have caused them to cancel trips, lose money and lay off staff, that OFAC will punish them by stowing their application on the bottom of a giant pile.
“U.S. Treasury impides Cuba People to People Travel”
I don’t think that’s true, but the very fact that companies are so skittish concerns me greatly. These are not fly-by-night groups. Typical groups that have or had Cuba “People to People” licenses include Harvard Alumni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Insight Cuba and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, all reputable groups that ran ethical and very good culturally-rich trips.
Now, a look at their websites tells the story. Harvard has one trip planned for Dec. 27 but with this caveat: “Pending ‘Cuba People to People travel” license renewal.” The Met wiped Cuba off its itinerary for now. National Geographic, which has run 29 trips taking 703 people total in the past year, is taking only preliminary waiting-list reservations for fall trips with no deposit. (A deposit, according to OFAC rules, is engaging in financial transaction with Cuba and illegal if you have no license) Insight Cuba has suspended all trips for the past two months and is on hold, waiting for its renewal that expired in June. National Trust has 4 Cuba trips still on its 2012 itinerary, but with an asterisk: “Pending People to People License Renewal.”
Whether you are pro-Cuba travel or anti-Cuba travel, this whole thing should concern you a lot. There is something sinister to me about preventing citizens from traveling under Cuba People to People travel, then allowing them to do so, then throwing giant roadblocks to prevent them from going after all.
So why is it happening?
It could be election year politics, with OFAC personnel covering their bases in case Democrats are out in November and Republicans take over.
It could be undue influence from the small but mighty faction of anti-Cuba types in Congress.
It could be the White House consciously deciding to slow down the program for political reasons in exchange for something it wants from Cuba.
Or it could just be bureaucratic overload, with hapless workers struggling under an avalanche of paperwork it thought it needed and no deadline, and meanwhile these worthy groups that have done so much work to run People to People trips to Cuba lose money, customers and confidence in their government.
Sponsored by Cuba Travel US – Offering trips to Cuba since 2001