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!