Visiting Cuba: Should You Go Now, or Wait for Change?

Cuba colourful building facades in candy shades

3 million visitors went to Cuba in 2014 and, if the headlines are to be believed, those figures will be smashed soon enough, thanks to improving international relations. In fact, travellers are being encouraged to turn up sooner rather than later if they want to beat the crowds; Mashable, amongst others, reported on the increased demand.

There’s been a ton of speculation and conflicting advice on the internet, so I’ve trawled through the best of it to help you decide when to book your stay.

No queue at Castro's ice-cream parlour Coppelia
Coppelia is an institution in this country, though the tourist side of the famous Vedado branch isn’t half as busy as the locals’ side.

Go Now – The American Icebreaker

Relations between Raul Castro (the Cuban president) and Barack Obama have definitely improved since the December announcement that the US’ longstanding trade embargo on Cuba would be relaxed. This month the two leaders were seen in the same room for the first time, at the Summit of the Americas – a good sign for Americans looking to visit Cuba, now there are fewer travel restrictions, but straightforward tourism isn’t yet permitted. If you’re a US citizen with a more official purpose, like research, sports events or studying, now is the time to go, because you’ll face less red tape than before.

Personally, if relations improve, I’m hoping to catch Obama enjoying ice-cream at Coppelia, the world’s largest ice-cream parlour, which was the brainchild of Fidel Castro. Sitting in Coppelia’s tourist side, separated by a currency and a wall from the Cuban people, is a bizarre experience. I’d like to see everyone able to enjoy it without the divides.

Urban exploring in bright Havana streets
Peeling paint and crumbling facades – a photographer’s dream.

Go Now – For the Time Warp

I spent a good portion of my trip in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which looks like a film set. Classic cars roll by, women parade with flowers in their hair and a parasol on their arm, and old men sit playing cards or busking on street corners. There’s no branch of McDonald’s or Starbucks, and the fashion is about 20 years out of date. Everything is ridiculously photogenic and the colours are piercing.

What you do need to acknowledge is that this old world charm comes at a price, and there is no film set. The churned up roads and the empty shells of half-finished buildings are real. Tourists pay with a different currency and are treated like gods, whereas locals have to use food vouchers and there isn’t much to go round. Life may be colourful and full of music, but it’s also bloody hard. Witnessing this strange place with 1950s cars is a real learning curve, and a fascinating one at that. If you want to see the reality of communism, this is your starting point.

Vintage cars in Havana Vieja from the Revolution Museum window
Car spotting from the Museo de la Revolucion.

Go Now – Before Visitor Growth

Last September the Havana Times reported that Cuba’s military was keen to attract more Chinese tourists. Not only does China embrace communism (a big thumbs up for the Castro brothers), but its wealthiest citizens are courted across the world by tourist boards and attractions keen to cash in. For example, many of the UK’s flashier department stores now have a handful of Chinese-speaking members of staff to make those big transactions happen.

I’m not suggesting Cuba will pave the streets with designer handbags, but if the elite are the main driving force behind the tourism industry it would only be common sense to charge them more elite prices. As for those of us with smaller wallets, visitor growth could potentially lead to more homogenised restaurants, hotels and bars, losing the flavour and personality of Cuba and leaving it as yet another interchangeable stopping point in the Caribbean.

Revolution Square in Havana
Camilo Cienfuegos’ image looks down on Plaza de la Revolución from the Ministry of Infomatics and Communications.

Wait – How Quickly Could Democracy Spread?

Many travel commentators are keen to point out that democracy doesn’t happen overnight, and any change would be very slow. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that new rulers would offer a democratic system, especially as there’s only one political party operating in the country (guess who?!).

As it stands, Cubans live in a ‘totalitarian communist state’ where the government controls all media, land and buildings, hotels, businesses and shops (except for small ones), banks, cultural and leisure sites (cinemas, etc.), to name just a few examples – the Washington Post has a great piece on the Cuban economy to explain things further.

Washing being hung out to dry in Havana
The tourist bus whips past row after row of tightly packed colonial balconies in central Havana.

Wait – Potential Price Wars

Of course, more tourists means more healthy competition for those in the industry, which is good news for consumers, but some companies suggested there’ll be huge immediate demand and price rises due to a predicted influx of Americans. Choosing to wait may increase your options and spare cash. You may have recently read that Ryanair might sell flights to America in the next few years – maybe Cuba could be its second transatlantic destination? Alternatively, you could enjoy a few days in Miami (with regular flight deals available from the UK) before travelling to Havana, giving you two countries in one trip and creating better overall value.

As for accommodation, there are a few cheap options available already, including casas particulares (homestays), but they’re not ideal for large families or groups. There’s no telling what would be on offer in the future, though I can see some of the neglected palatial houses being very appealing to hotel developers in the right circumstances.

Cuban cabs in need of repair with rust patches
This poor Lada taxi was on its last legs (view from the back seat!). Still, the driver was lovely and looked after us.

Wait – If You’re High Maintenance

Unless you’re planning on being holed up inside a Varadero beach resort, part of visiting Cuba is seeing the grittier side of life. As soon as you leave your hotel you’ll need to wear sensible shoes and look out for potholes as you cross the road; any taxi ride is going to be an unforgettable one. Oh, and if you expect any activities to run on time, you’ll be in for a shock. But, if you can survive without high heels, slick cars and smooth schedules, there’s so much to be gained from your trip.

Perhaps in 20 years’ time Havana will have pothole-free roads and cabs as clean as Japanese toilets, but these commodities won’t be available any time soon (however, education and health care is world class). Either learn to ditch your inner diva and embrace the embodiment of ‘shabby chic’, or hold out for gradual lifestyle changes here.

Cuban lady sits on the side of the street in front of railings
Will you visit Cuba this year?

Verdict

Think about your style of travel and what is most important to you when you’re on holiday. If you don’t mind less-than-pristine surroundings and you’re genuinely interested in history, you’ve got nothing to lose by going now. Though my own trip to Cuba wasn’t plain sailing, I’m still glad I went; there’s nowhere quite like it.

However, if you prioritise home comforts and familiar brand names, or you feel uncomfortable about visiting a communist country (which is perfectly understandable – it’s not all sunshine and roses), consider visiting when things begin to change. Just don’t hold out for a utopian ideal, because no country is perfect.

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