President Barack Obama’s mid-December 2014 announcement that the US would restore diplomatic relations and ease tensions with the Castro government ignited US travelers’ interest in visiting Cuba. In defiance of a continuing ban on tourism, in the first three months of 2015 more than 50,000 US citizens visited the island—a 36 percent increase from the same period the year before. Returning travelers flooded travel blogs with pictures and stories of Cuba’s unique glamor, crumbling and romantic, and the number of visitors and those interested in visiting Cuba continued to grow. Travel companies and development agencies project that millions of US citizens will visit Cuba in the next decade. However, travelers trying to reach the island in the new few years will find that every step of the trip, from arranging paperwork, flights, and hotels, to staying safe and in contact with people back home is still complicated. Knowing what to expect can help travelers avoid some of the biggest pitfalls.
Getting There: Easier—but Still a Hassle
The first two steps in reaching Cuba are getting the US government to give the ok, and finding a way to travel from the US. Historically, would-be travelers had to convince the US government that their trip fit into one or more of twelve “permitted” categories, which required extensive paperwork and, occasionally, interviews. In the last year, the US government travel permit process has become more flexible, accepting more applicants with less required paperwork. A second round of bureaucratic easing in September opened the door further, allowing some close family members to accompany visitors on permitted trips.
Recognizing the potential market, travel companies are moving forward with plans to expand their US-Cuba operations. Airline companies are trying to establish regular, direct US-Cuba commercial routes in 2016. In July, Carnival Corp got the thumbs-up from the US government to begin docking ships as early as 2016. A planned ferry line from Miami to Havana promises to eventually turn getting to Cuba into an overnight boat ride.
Hotels: Low Quality and Quantity
Until major multinational hotel companies are able to open facilities in Cuba, travelers will have trouble finding upscale commercial accommodations. At present, the commercial hotels are owned by the Cuban government or run as public-private partnerships between the government and hotel companies. The government also sets the star rating for hotels, meaning that ratings are generous. Discrepancies on travel message boards show that some of the “five-star” hotels suffer from crumbling facilities and inconsistent electricity.
Not only are hotels limited in quality, they are also limited in quantity. According to the Cuban government, as of 2013 the country only had 60,000 hotel rooms, far fewer than needed to meet the demands of the new tourist population. Major hoteliers have been pushing to establish beachfront resorts since the December 2014 announcement, and Marriot, Hilton, and Radisson are hoping to begin building as soon as the legal situation allows. However, the buildings will not be ready for guests for the next few years.
Travelers wanting to avoid the industrial hotel system can find home-stay options, known as casa particulars, but the system is informal and unregulated.
Money Complexities: Paying to Play
Travelers to Cuba will have to navigate the complexity of a duel currency system and complications with using US bank-backed credit cards—at least for the next few months.
Cuba has the peso (CUP) for the small-purchase domestic economy and the “convertible” peso (CUC) for purchases and transfers in the government market, which includes restaurants, hotels, venue tickets, and most other purchases a traveler is likely to make. Since 1994, Cuba has been openly moving toward a single currency, but unifying the convertible peso and the small-purchase peso is complicated, and could destabilize local economies. The government is moving slowly to minimize market disruptions, but there are signs—including efforts to standardize convertible peso pricing and roll out higher-value denominations—that unification could happen in the next year.
Before Obama’s announcement, travelers could not use US bank-backed credit cards in Cuba. Major credit card companies have since lifted their block on Cuba-based transactions, but banks were wary to adjust their policies. In July the Florida-based Stonegate Bank became the first company to establish a foothold in Cuba in 54 years, allowing their customers to use their MasterCard in the country. For travelers who are not Stonegate clients, the discrepancy between bank hesitancy and credit card policies means that travelers will have to contact their specific banks to check what the policy of the minute is before attempting to use credit cards in Havana.
Criminals: Following the Money
Thieves target travelers, and as more and wealthier visitors flood into Havana, criminal groups will likely become increasingly savvy at separating tourists from their wallets, jewelry, and electronics. Low-effort, high-yield crimes like pickpocketing and purse-snatching will follow in the wake of tourist crowds. Thieves are likely to hit travelers most often at outdoor locations like restaurants or shopping districts. In 2015, the US State Department warned travelers of a growing criminal threat, citing a rash of incidents in the historically low-crime areas of the Havana.
Travelers report that criminals have developed a range of exploitative scams to relieve travelers of small sums of money. One of the most well-known ploys is the “puncture” scam: locals pop tires on parked cars and then offer their assistance—for a price. Other scams include adding additional items to restaurant bills, changing between dollars and pesos (the dollar sign is used for both), and taxi drivers insisting that the meter is broken in order to charge travelers more.
To date, there have been few violent crimes affecting foreign travelers. According to UN information, Cuba’s murder rate is the third-lowest in the Western Hemisphere, significantly lower than the US rate. It is likely that some violent crimes go unreported, and the local media do not report most crimes, but the US, UK, and Australian diplomatic services report few incidents affecting travelers. Of the known violent crimes involving foreigners, most have happened when travelers were engaging in illegal behavior, specifically when trying to hire sex workers. Attackers have been armed with knives and small caliber guns.
Civil Unrest: Rare, but US Travelers Should be Especially Careful
The Cuban government is very sensitive to dissent, so protests and demonstrations are extremely rare, but when they do occur, police will intervene quickly and foreigners who are picked up in association with unrest will be in the dangerous position of being accused of fomenting or encouraging unrest. Given the history between the US and Cuba, this is something that travelers will want to avoid.
The Cuban Government: Unwanted Attention
Historically, the government has monitored foreign travelers. Anecdotal reports suggest that the government has become slowly less concerned with visitors, and that incidents of “suspicious” attention have dropped. The US government still warns travelers that their electronics may be seized by the government for no apparent reason, and that travelers should not assume that electronic communications are private.
Natural Disasters: When It Rains, It Pours, and Then It Floods
Cuba is hit periodically by severe storms and hurricanes that bring high winds and flooding, and occasionally severe earthquakes strike the island. The government is usually proactive in evacuating people during bad weather, but roads and buildings are not built to withstand strong seismic activity or severe weather. Some of the rural areas have very limited infrastructure, and if travelers are in the area during a disaster, they could be entirely cut off from rescue.
Communication Issues: “Can you hear me now? No? Now?”
The embargo severely hampered the development of cellular infrastructure in Cuba. In 2012, the country had a 23 percent telephone density, according to the CIA’s World FactBook. To compare, the US has a 100 percent telephone density, and India hovers around 76 percent. Government plans to develop the telephone cable system, but extending service outside of Havana and other urban areas has been hampered by the weak peso, meaning that coverage is spotty at best. But on the good side, Verizon is now providing service in the country, so US Verizon customers can use their phones in Cuba. It is expensive—as of September, almost USD 3 a minute—but prices are likely to improve over the next few years, as telecom companies move into the Cuban market.
Medical Facilities: Some Good, Some….Not-So-Much
Medical facilities in Cuba are not standardized. Some facilities are clean and well-stocked, and some treatment is less expensive than in the US. However, investigative reports have found facilities in the cities and in rural areas with filthy conditions, insufficient beds, and poor care. Ambulance response is also inconsistent in urban areas and extremely limited outside of cities.
As a side note: Since 2010, the Cuban government has required all visitors entering the country to show evidence of travel insurance that includes medical emergency coverage. The first round of new rules from the Treasury and Commerce departments following Obama’s announcement lifted some of the restrictions on insurance companies, which can now provide travelers with coverage while they are in Cuba. However, travel companies arranging individual visits to Cuba are still urging US citizens to get additional coverage before they leave.
For travelers, visiting Cuba could be an ideal destination: history, culture, beautiful beaches, architecture, nightlife—and the opportunity to see history unfolding. But Cuba in the next few years will stay complicated, and travelers operating in the new and raw space will need to get savvy quickly. For young or novice travelers intent on experiencing the new cuba libre, the best defense will be information and preparation: by knowing what to expect travelers can anticipate the bureaucratic loops, the hotel issues, the crime, and the limited support structure in country—and work with more experienced travelers plan how to get to, through, and safely back from Cuba.
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