Cuba — past, present and future

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 56 of the August 2016 issue.
Tour group members exploring Old Havana on a rare cool day. Photo by Randy Keck

The facts and opinions expressed in this column are based on firsthand observation. On 10 occasions since 2010, I have traveled to Cuba as a travel writer or in some other tourism-related capacity, visiting 15 of the island’s 16 provinces and all of the major cities. I have another two visits scheduled before November 2016.

An enthusiastic welcome

Earlier this year, I had occasion to visit Cuba’s most popular and most developed resort destination, Varadero, located 120 miles east of Havana on a long spit jutting into the azure Atlantic.

Varadero sports more than 40 all-inclusive resorts, ranging in capacity from 350 to 1,100 rooms. The resort area even has its own international airport, one of nine airports in Cuba offering flights to foreign destinations, primarily in Canada and Europe.

On my first visit to Varadero, in November 2015, I was at a large beach resort and riding as the sole passenger in a golf cart driven by a porter. The porter commented that he did not recognize my accent and inquired as to what region of Canada I was from. When I answered that I was from the States, he hit the brakes, turned and looked at me with disbelief, remarking that he had worked at two Varadero resorts for over five years and I was the first person from the US he had ever met!

He was fully aware that US citizens are not allowed to travel to Cuba as tourists, and he wanted to know in detail about how I happened to be there. He commented about how, all these years, we were so near yet so far away. 

Within a few hours, all of the resort staff seemed to know that the Stars and Stripes had finally arrived in Varadero — quite the change from  the standard customer base, which is primarily Canadian but with some Europeans, mostly under the age of 45.

Of course, the Cuban staff also was aware that Americans are known to be more generous tippers.

Quality of life on the island

Despite the US government’s longstanding trade embargo, Cuba has survived and, under the circumstances, has done fairly well. Cuba has a literacy rate of nearly 100%, and the country provides free education through the doctorate level.

Additionally, Cuba provides quality health care at no cost to all of its citizens. Such is the quality of medical training in Cuba that the country exports, by contract, the services of thousands of doctors and other medical personnel each year to countries in the Americas and beyond as a necessary form of trade revenue.   

Cuba is also usually among the first to offer and provide medical personnel when there is a major disaster somewhere in the world.

Nevertheless, the continuing embargo has helped insure that the majority of Cubans have few pesos in their pockets and live a relatively spartan economic existence.

With the Obama administration’s progressive loosening of restrictions on travel to Cuba, US citizens by the thousands now are streaming to the formerly forbidden island, traveling primarily in groups — but now also individually — as members of “People to People” programs or under any of 11 other categories of people whose purposes for travel to Cuba are approved by the US government.

The throngs are visiting out of both curiosity and the desire to experience the real Cuba now, before the effects of mass tourism potentially change the island’s landscape forever.

Changes abound

Over the last couple of years, many quite staggering and previously unimaginable changes have taken place in Cuba.

Thousands of private restaurants are now flourishing throughout the island, with the full blessing of the government. More spring to life with each passing day.

Also, hundreds of private bed-and-breakfasts and home room-rental businesses have been developed to date, with the openings of countless more on the horizon.

Most of these private restaurant and lodging concerns are being funded by foreign investors in conjunction with local Cuban partners/operators. In addition, many investors are Cubans who are residing overseas.

On top of that, many other types of formerly government-run businesses, especially those in the service sector, such as barber shops, are being turned over to senior employees to operate as private “for profit” enterprises.

All of these new private businesses are generating much-needed tax revenue for the cash-strapped government, virtually guaranteeing the trend will continue.

On the accommodation side, all parties are hoping the private rentals will help relieve the strain on overbooked hotels.

As of the first week of May 2016, a Carnival cruise ship with 700-plus passengers is arriving in Cuba from Miami every other week, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. This poses passenger-handling challenges in those three ports but relieves the strain on hotels.

Bookings tight, with costs spiking  

Hotel room rates, especially in high-demand destinations such as Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad, continue to rise rapidly, and most of the better, in-demand hotel properties are now fully booked months in advance. Hotel bookings for groups have become difficult to secure, even six to 12 months ahead, especially with confirmed rates.

In June, I received an industry update stating that the prices of hotel rooms and related tourism services in Cuba are slated to increase an additional 25% for November and December 2016 and 40% to 50% for 2017. This means that a 9-night, fully-inclusive group tour that was priced (both air and land) at less than $3,000 in early 2015 could cost well over $4,200 by January 2017.

This degree of rate increase is unprecedented. In response, bookings for “People to People” group tours, in particular, are slowing. These rate hikes coincide with the US government’s rule change in March of this year that allows individuals as well as groups to now travel under the same program licenses. 

However, those traveling independently are finding out that, due to limited transportation options and other booking difficulties, it can be quite challenging to actually confirm arrangements and efficiently tour around the country.   

Where does Cuba go from here? 

Anyone who tries to tell you they know exactly how things are going to play out in Cuba over the next two, five or 10 years is blowing smoke. No one knows, including the Cuban government, as there is no blueprint to work from. However, based on my ongoing, on-the-ground experiences all over Cuba, I feel comfortable in sharing some thoughts about what I think will NOT be happening in the near future in Cuba and why.

First and foremost, it must be understood that Cuba is a proud nation of nearly 11.5 million, with a strong cultural heritage that resides deep within the souls of all Cubans.

It is my conviction that the changes that have taken place as well as those that loom will be, for a litany of reasons, irreversible, regardless of the results of the November 2016 elections in the US. However, I also believe that while the rate of change will be steady, it will be — both by design and of necessity — less hurried than many observers imagine.

The island has a broad-spectrum economy. It also has an infrastructure that is in need of rebuilding, much of it from the ground up. While increased tourism dollars from the US will certainly lead to many changes, indications are that these will not occur at the expense of having foreign influence dictate policy or direction.

The Cubans are not going to give away the farm, particularly in terms of sacrificing cultural identity or their pristine natural coastal environment for the sake of additional tourism dollars from the giant to the north.

Final thoughts

Despite the rising prices and any difficulties in securing accommodations, I absolutely encourage all readers who have not yet been to Cuba to visit as soon as possible. Also, unlike other Caribbean islands, all of which are smaller, Cuba requires multiple trips to see the entire country, so you might as well get started.

Aside from that consideration, the variety of cultural and natural attractions, including the alluring beaches, combined with a safe, hospitable environment, insures that Cuba will be a repeat destination for many Americans as it has been for savvy Canadians and Europeans over several decades. 

Finally, in the “Beyond the Garden Wall” [above], I will share with you, without explanation, my numero-uno Cuba secret. This proclamation may make little sense before you visit Cuba, but it will resonate fully once you do. F

Contact Randy at 80 America Way, Jamestown, RI 02835; 401/560-0350,