By Jim Ferri
The Obama administration’s announcement that restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans would be eased has stirred up a lot of interest in Cuba among American travelers.
And MasterCard’s announcement about a week later that its card would now be accepted in Cuba fanned the flame.
And why not? Most travelers love visiting places once considered forbidden fruit. Just look at the huge influx of American travelers to Eastern Europe, China and, more recently, Myanmar/Burma. And Cuba isn’t even hallway around the world. It’s only 90 miles off the U.S. coast.
Not As Wide Open As Many Think
But regardless of all the hoopla about Havana, and travel to Cuba in general, things aren’t as wide open as many think.
First of all, the agreement doesn’t entirely open travel to the island by Americans, it just eases certain restrictions on travel to Cuba by eliminating some of the red tape for those who fall into one of the twelve stated categories listed in the nearly five-decade old embargo.
The most common of these categories are educational activities (including people-to-people travel), journalistic and religious activities, professional meetings, humanitarian projects and family visits.
Other categories include family visits; official U.S. government business; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions; exhibitions; and support for the Cuban people. None of these will now require case-by-case specific licensing from the Treasury Department.
Tourism Still Prohibited
You still, however, cannot legally travel to Cuba for tourism.
Since tourism has become so vital to the Cuban economy it’s likely that the U.S. is holding onto this trump card to use it as a motivator in future negotiations. In fact, the new regulations still prohibit travel for professional meetings if the purpose of those meetings is to promote tourism.
Although this easing of regulations is likely just the first step in facilitating American tourist-visits to the island, that likely isn’t going to happen soon. Although “travel agents and airlines will be authorized to provide authorized travel and air carrier services,” don’t expect to see U.S. airlines flying to Havana tomorrow since it does take time to institute service. When that happens you’ll be well aware of the event since the first flight will most probably be crammed with television news crews.
In terms of hotels things will likely take even longer since it takes years to construct a hotel. Even if a major American chain takes over an existing property, considering the state of the crumbling Cuban infrastructure, repairs to existing facilities could also take a long time.
You can be certain every major American hotel chain has been hoping for this day for years and has some type of plan in mind. And just wait until the casinos, whose executives would love to see Batista redux, attempt to edge their way back into Cuba.
All in all though, the new regulations do lay the groundwork for negotiations that could allow American tour operators to operate in Cuba in the future.
Looking on the Bright Side
Looking on the brighter side, the new regulations now allow you to legally bring home Cuban cigars and rum, although that’s still subject to the normal $100 limit.
Also, the per diem rate that had been imposed on authorized U.S. travelers for the past five decades has now been eliminated, allowing you to now spend as much as you’d like. And, of course, as publicized by MasterCard, you’ll now be able to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba.
What Can I Expect If I Travel There?
For the vast majority of travelers (i.e. those visiting Cuba on people-to-people travel, or for religious activities, humanitarian projects or family visits) a visit to Cuba will still entail difficulties.
The country’s infrastructure is so horrific that buildings continue to collapse in Havana at an alarming rate. Even when you get out of the normal tourist areas in the capital you’ll find some streets almost, if not totally impassable. In addition, transportation about the island is exceptionally difficult.
Also, due to depletion of the land because of poor farming methods, most food is almost tasteless, exacerbated by the lack of spices, herbs and even salt and pepper. Almost all good food is imported and is usually found only in those restaurants that have a connection with the right people in government, thus allowing its importation.
On the other hand, you’ll find Cubans to be some of the friendliest people you’ll meet anywhere, despite the lifestyle most have been forced to endure for so long.
If you want to experience the beauty of authentic Cuba, and have the opportunity to meet real Cubans, get out in the countryside and visit such areas as Baracoa, in Guantánamo Province, and Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern coast. In both of these places, as well as in many of the towns in the 500+ miles between them and the capital, you’ll get a more authentic taste of the country and its people.