Cuba's open for tourism again almost like before, better in some ways

Cuba’s surprise victory over Covid lets it reopen in new ways to US visitors

  • by Ish Theilheimer

For 60 years, Cuba has held off American hostility, now it appears to have defeated Covid and is ready to open its doors again to visitors, even Americans, if they understand the rules.

As recently as September 13, when the island with 11 million residents had 8,342 new cases of Covid reported , with similar numbers every day that week, this hardly seemed possible. Now the picture has flipped. Numbers are going down every day, with just 567 new cases reported on November 3, for example, thanks to a rapid vaccine rollout.

So what’s new? Cuba and Cubans have a long history of ingenuity, defying the odds and confounding the experts, and they may have done it again. Cuba has developed on its own Covid vaccines and appears to have Covid under control and is ready to welcome visitors again.

Although American citizens are prohibited from staying in them because the Trump administration said they are operated by Cuba’s military and Biden has made no change to the policy, resorts will be back in business this winter and offering the same kind of all-inclusive holiday experiences as in the past. Many have used the shutdown during the pandemic to improve and renovate facilities, and Internet connectivity in Cuba has improved dramatically.

With resorts off limits due to Trump’s rules, the main places Americans will be able to stay are in apartments usually rented via airbnb, or in casas particulares (private guest homes). And even they [are off limits if Trump’s administration put them on the list for being owned by a government or military official.

Casas (also known as hostales) offer a much more authentic Cuban experience and have become widespread in Cuba. They are all equipped with air conditioning and en suite bathrooms and can often be very comfortable and pleasant.

Staying in a casa particular is one of the best ways to get to know Cuba and Cubans, with the money you pay going into Cuban pockets and the local economy. Some, but not all of them, will be back in business this winter, depending on their ability to obtain food and other supplies. One of my favourites, in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, at the point of writing, is unsure about even being able to supply soap, much less food for guests. This may change quickly. It’s important to inquire.

Another favourite casa of mine, Casa Larabi, on the coast near Cienfuegos, himself has secured food supplies and expects normal operation and fairly normal prices and expects to be able to overcome supply problems. Food, its owner Larabi says, “Is certainly a challenge, however we have a taxi that helps us with shopping. I cook the bread myself.”

So it varies, and it’s important, if you plan on staying in a casa to locate choice ones well in advance, get in touch, and find out if they’re still in businss and can feed you (many do great dinners as well as breakfasts). A great source of current info on casas is the website and free app Cuba Junky.

In Cuba’s cities and towns, locals have experienced real shortages of foods and consumer goods. Like its resorts, at least some of Cuba’s restaurants have access to supplies and distribution of foods not available to locals. You may find it disturbing, but it is also a reality, that without visitors with cash and plastic in hand, there is widespread unemployment and almost no money in circulation. If you want to add to the good you do when you visit Cuba, tip generously - in Canadian money or Euros if possible, but not with foreign coins, though, as they cannot be exchanged in Cuba. US dollars, which are officially valued at 24 CUPs (Cuban pesos) are now prohibited for use on the island.

Concerned that you, as a tourist, might be taking food from the mouths of hungry locals? Lessner Gomez Molina, Director of Cuban’s MinTur office in Toronto, says, “It’s the other way around. Tourism is an important source of income for the economy, better tourism performance, better economy, more products will be available in the local markets.”

Tourists who want to be sure they’re helping real Cubans should be discriminating, says Kristen MacQueen, a Canadian who lives full-time in Havana with her Cuban husband, Abel Pez Cespedes. Together, they run WowCuba, a cycle touring and adventure travel company.

“When choosing private home stays, I personally like to find out if the owner lives there. Choosing tour operators who select ethical operators to collaborate with is (another) way to simplify that whole business if travelers are so inclined.”

Cuba is a land of ironies, and its monetary system follows suit. In January, it replaced it dual-currency system - CUCs and CUPs - with a new, if unintended, dual-currency system - CUPs and foreign cash. The CUC, which was created to redirect foreign cash currency being brought to Cuba to state banking institutions, has been eliminated. New “MLC stores” that only accept credit cards or digital payments based on foreign currency have been established and businesses have moved rapidly to accepting digital payment, where, formerly, only cash had been used. Cuba, where cash was king until recently, is rapidly becoming more plastic-friendly.

Some private operators will accept payment in foreign cash currency (CAD/EUR), MacQueen expects. “But we won’t have a better handle on how most private entrepreneurs handle visitors with foreign cash until things begin to open up a little more.”

With Covid coming under control and most of the population vaccinated, things are moving back to normal, though Cuba’s health system was close to collapse in late summer. The resort areas have health clinics and reasonably-stocked pharmacies. Quality medical services continue to be widely available in Cuba and international clinics have remained open during the pandemic. PCR tests for travellers returning to their home countries are available at resorts and international clinics.

While Canadians can easily get to Cuba via scheduled or charter airlines, it’s a lot harder for Americans. MacQueen says the few fights available on American airlines are pricey, and most have been full for months. “Trump cut off all flights to anywhere other than Havana, and Biden’s not made any move to reverse the damage.” For Americans living in northern states, travel through Canada is probably best.

US tourism in Cuba blossomed once Obama opened the taps, but Trump clamped down on that, with sanctions that don’t permit USA-Cuba travel for tourism purposes at all. According to their rules, Americans (and those traveling directly from US territory to Cuba) must fit their visits into one of twelve categories . MacQueen says “Support the Cuban People” is the most commonly-used category.

It won’t be quite like your last trip to Cuba. You’ll need a mask and proof of vaccination, and, if you’re an American, the all-inclusive you might have stayed at before is a no-no now. But Cuba and Cubans will be more than glad to see you.

In Playa Rancho Luna, Larabi certainly will be. Already, he has Airbnb reservations. And he’s been stocking up. “I have over 150kg of fresh frozen mango and over 150kg of frozen avocado to make guacamole.”

I’m eager to get there again and try some.

– Ish Theilheimer is a writer who travels often in Cuba. He lives in Golden Lake, Ontario, Canada, where he produces musical theatre.


Masked tourists check in at a Cuban resort in 2021 - Photo: MINTUR Cuba

Workers at a Trinidad resort prepare for this winter’s customers - Photo by Ana Martha Panadés - Escambray

Larabi with his wife, Daylemi, the casa’s receptionist Letecia, and his daughter Veronica at Casa Larabi in Playa Rancho Luna

Milgaro is a house-cleaner and server at Casa Larabi, where much of the food is home-grown

Kristen MacQueen and her husband Abel Pez Cespedes run the cycling and adventure tour company WoWCuba.