Cuba – Changes are in the air
Cuba: Changes are in the air
By Gig Gwin Special to the Post-Dispatch
A jazz performance at a privately-owned home that serves as a restaurant
called a paladar. photo by Gig Gwin
A local resident of Havana sits on the malecon (seawall) at the Havana
harbor with a view of a Spanish fort behind him. photo by Gig Gwin
The Celestyal Cristal ship lies anchored off Maria La Gorda. Tenders
were used to bring passengers to the beach and national park. photo by
In the front circle of the Hotel Nacional, in downtown Havana, Cuba,
tourists can find old American classic cars driven by locals for hire.
photo by Gig Gwin
Cigar sales are am important product for Cuba at the government run
cigar store. Tourists can bring home no more than $100 worth of tobacco
and/or liquor from Cuba. photo by Gig Gwin
Ernest Hemingway lived 30 years in Havana where he wrote many of his
famous works. This is his drawing room with trophies from Africa. photo
by Gig Gwin
In a plaza in old Spanish Havana, local vendors sell books.. photo by
The Havana Cathedral had recently been cleaned for the recent visit of
Pope Francis. photo by Gig Gwin
Many people cannot afford automobiles so traditional horse and carriage
rides are still common throughout Cuba. photo by Gig Gwin
On the People to People program, In Cienfuegoes, travelers were treated
to a vocal concert by an acapella choir in Cienfuegoes. photo by Gig Gwin
The winds of change are blowing through the Caribbean. After decades of
isolation from Americans, Cuba is opening, and that’s especially good
news for tourists.
What makes Cuba so intriguing for U.S. travelers? To begin with, its
close proximity will allow convenient flights from gateway cities,
coupled with reasonable airfares. In addition, most Americans will
remember the Cuban music through Ricky and Lucy Ricardo on television,
and still today, Cuban music is as big as ever, dominating every corner
of the island.
Then, there are the cars. Stand on any corner in Havana and watch a
parade of classic American cars from the 1940s and ’50s passing by at
every turn. Couple that with memories of Ernest Hemingway, Teddy
Roosevelt and the Tropicana nightlife and you have a vibrant vacation
spot of the future.
In February, my wife and I took a trip to Cuba. While I had traveled to
Cuba twice before as a journalist, my wife had not been. She wanted to
see Cuba today, before Americanization (think fast food restaurants,
Starbucks and Walmart) changes it.
We signed up for a Globus Tours package that included a cruise with
Cuban ports of call. We flew to Miami and took a short charter flight
the next morning to Havana, where we boarded the Celestyal Crystal
cruise ship. Our tour was a People to People program, which allowed us
to interact with the Cuban people but enjoy the amenities of a cruise
ship. There are no bargains yet for Americans. Among others, both Globus
and Apple Vacations offer all-inclusive packages in the $4,000 per
person range, which includes land and cruise.
A bit of history. For several decades, Fidel Castro kept the curtain of
Communism closed to the United States. There was the Bay of Pigs
invasion, a missile crisis and a trade embargo that stopped the flow of
American tourists from legally entering the island of Cuba. Embassies
were closed and diplomatic relationships frozen. There was some limited
cooperation, particularly in weather forecasting, medicine and
commercial flights crossing Cuban airspace, but not much else.
With the fading of Fidel’s health, the winds of change began to blow.
Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, assumed the reins of leadership, and
within a short period of time, the ice of political discord started to
thaw. President Barack Obama lessened travel restrictions and commercial
interchange. The most significant result of these negotiations was the
re-establishment of embassies in Washington and Havana.
Before that, U.S. citizens were barred from traveling to Cuba, except
under a very restrictive 12 categories of travel requiring a specific
license, which had to be applied for each time, or a hard-to-get general
license that permitted people to return multiple times. The big change
has been that Obama has put all 12 categories of travel under a general
license. Among the categories is the People to People program. Yet, the
rules and regulations regarding travel to and from Cuba have been ever
changing and capricious. This remains a sensitive issue as negotiations
continue to open the doors. But in general, because of these changes, if
you want to go to Cuba, you can find a way now.
Other changes that have occurred over the past year have included
opportunities to fly from airports such as Los Angeles and New York
(working on flights is still in progress) and the ability to buy up to
$400 worth of Cuban goods, including up to $100 worth of tobacco and
alcohol. More Americans are exploring options for business relations in
Cuba, including the future opening of a tractor factory that will
benefit both Cuban farmers and American business. In April, the U.S. and
Cuba agreed to restore direct mail service, following decades of
What now exists in Cuban tourism might surprise you. There are a limited
number of four or five star resorts in Havana. The Melia properties
provide luxurious surroundings, and the historic Hotel Nacional De Cuba
is in the process of being upgraded to western standards. Additionally,
an hour or so east of Havana is lovely Varadero Beach. Here you will
find elegant resorts built primarily by Spanish, Italian and Canadian
Beautiful white sand beaches, with European bathing and water sports,
provide capitalist pleasures, with tasty continental and Cuban cuisine.
These have not been readily accessible to American tourists for a long
time, mainly because they have not been included on the People to People
tours. Our European and Canadian friends have cornered that market.
Things are moving — it is now in the process of being opened to the
American sun and surf market.
Lodging accommodations are still, however, limited in number of rooms
and availability, due to the fact that there has been only moderate
demand for upscale lodging. This demand will surely grow as more
Americans have access to tourism in Cuba. To bridge this gap, Obama and
Raul Castro have agreed that cruise ships will provide floating
accommodations. This gives travelers both the experience of People to
People touring and the soft surroundings of a cruise ship.
What can future American tourists expect from their new travel
opportunities in Cuba? On our February trip, my third, I found a
surprisingly relaxed political environment. Off the back of the
Celestyal Crystal we enjoyed the ports of call of Havana, Maria La
Gorda, Cienfuego and Santiago de Cuba. Historical and cultural venues
were presented to us on a daily basis, including the Hemingway house, a
mojito drink at the Hotel Nacional, and in Santiago de Cuba a trip up
San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt and the rough riders helped free the
Cubans from Spanish rule. At night, we enjoyed the gentle surroundings
of a cruise ship with swimming pool, hot tub, multi-course meals and
Marilyn Davis of Kirkwood recently traveled to Cuba on the People to
People program. She was on the last cruise of the season on the
Celestyal Crystal in April.
“While I had been extremely excited about this new travel opportunity, I
had not fully understood how really thorough the person to person aspect
of the trip would be,” Davis said. “Apparently, though not necessarily,
unrestricted, our group met an architect working in Old Havana, daycare
teachers, a doctor, a nurse, a baseball player, artists, a fisherman, a
forest ranger, a meteorologist, a botanist, samba/jazz musicians, a
cappella choir members and workers at a cigar factory. We saw huge
iguanas and multitudes of land crabs making for the ocean to lay eggs.
… The people could not have been more gracious or friendlier and
provided us with little or none of the communist propaganda I expected.”
Since that time, the first cruise ship from America, the Carnival
Adonia, left Miami and docked in Havana in early May. The advent of
American cruise opportunities to Cuba continues to change the landscape
of tourism for Americans looking to experience Cuba.
What an eye-opening experience the new Cuba will be for American
tourists. As Obama and Raul Castro continue to open the gates of Cuba,
the historical past and the new future of Caribbean tourism will unfold
for the pent-up demand of Yankees.
Enjoy the nostalgia of vintage Chevys, Fords and Plymouths, and cruise
through the fabled old Spanish port of Havana in this new era of travel
opportunity. Cuba may very well become the premier Caribbean destination
in the near future. So take a chance — go — visit Cuba before the
Americanization of the island. And raise a mojito and toast the change
in the air.
Source: Cuba: Changes are in the air | Travel | stltoday.com –