Cuba! That mysterious country known for its cigars and cars. First there was a revolution. Then a little event called “The Bay of Pigs.” Plus a couple of brothers with the last name of Castro, and some hard-ass guy, Che Guevara.
Off-limits to Americans for over half a century, the door is slowly opening. By the time Cuba ramps up for full-time tourism, it will be too late to witness its former authentic self. Rather, it will transform into the Disney-version, leaving visitors to marvel at how “real” it seems as they queue up at the fast-food kiosks.
Canadians and Europeans have been traveling to Cuba for years; in fact, Canadians are 40% of the total visitors. They’ve enjoyed the beaches, national parks, colonial architecture, and nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Old Havana. Americans could enter, as well, but had to jump through numerous hoops. Tourism wasn’t yet a a full-scale industry, so the country’s weak infrastructure could handle the load.
Cuba is going to change in the blink of an eye
If you’ve ever thought about going to Cuba–you need to go NOW. Everything is about to change:
- The entire country has only 63,000 hotel rooms. (Not surprising, AirBnB is thriving there!) But in 2016, the government announced that 100,000 more rooms are on the way over the next 15 years. Marriott and Starwood are already making plans.
- The cruises are coming, the cruises are coming! Five cruise lines have approval to dock in Cuba: Norwegian and Royal Caribbean, as well as their smaller, upscale lines (Azamara, Oceania, and Regent) will begin in April 2017. If you’ve ever been in a port city when the ships arrive, you know what this means: hordes of passengers descending into town for a few hours, following tour guides holding up umbrellas.
- Tourism in general is already growing. Lonely Planet reports that over 3.5 million people found their way to Cuba in 2015…a 17.4% increase from 2014. The numbers are going to skyrocket, now that the country is looking to invest in tourism as a way to grow the economy. More visitors = more souvenir shops = more revenue = declining authenticity.
What else is going to be different?
Since I’m going to Cuba this year, I’ve been reading everything I can about traveling in a country with different rules and resources. What I’m learning makes me want to go today…the clock is ticking. To give you an idea, here are some travel tips from Tour Radar that explain why I’m so eager to get there:
- No wi-fi! At least, hardly any. It’s rare…and expensive. If 70% of Cubans can get by without Facebook, so can I.
- Cash only! ATMs? Credit cards? Good luck. And Americans will have an even harder time if their bank has any affiliation with Cuba. As in, instant account freeze.
- Bring toilet paper! Not only are there very few public toilets, but there will likely be no toilet paper.
- Bottled water only! The water system is always strained (making me wonder how 100,000 hotel rooms are going to function) and water purity is inconsistent.
- Two Cuban currencies! One for locals, the other for everyone else. Surely this will change, but for now, how interesting for visitors.
- Bartering is encouraged! Cubans struggle to get basics at the state-stocked stores. Bring soap, toiletries, and “everyday” items to swap.
You can see that Cuba has more than ’50s cars. It has a ’50s infrastructure that is going to have to change rapidly. Once the most popular Caribbean destination, it looks to regain its crown. And whether it succeeds or not, Señor Frogs and Starbucks are surely on the horizon. Cubans will call it progress. I’ll call it heartbreaking.