Jan 042015
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Veradero Beach

Veradero Beach

Looking back at a visit to Cuba and the past century of tourism

Since mid-December, when U.S. President Obama announced a decision to restore relations with Cuba, I’ve read a variety of articles, online and in print, about Cuba. Some expressed opinions, either for or against, about Obama’s decision. Others speculated about what changes this decision might bring to Cuba. Others talked about travel to Cuba.

The articles brought back memories about my trip to Cuba almost eleven years ago. I starting looking through my photographs from my trip and, surprisingly, they didn’t look significantly different than the more recent photos posted in those articles.

Although most U.S. citizens are still unable to visit Cuba, tourism is one of the main sources of income for the Caribbean island. Beaches, a tropical climate, Latin culture, and affordability draw vacationers to the island. The largest numbers come from Canada, followed by Europe. A recent article in The Globe and Mail identified Cuba as a top-three destination for Canadians, behind the U.S. and Mexico, with more than one million people visiting in 2012.

Like the country’s political history, the history of tourism in Cuba does not follow a smooth path. Cuba was a popular tourist destination from 1915 to 1930. After 1930, tourism dropped off due to a combination of factors: the Great Depression, the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and World War II. Tourism rebounded in the 1950s and Havana, Cuba’s capital city, became known as the “Latin Las Vegas”. American organized crime was dominant in the industry at that time. 

La Bodeguita Del Medico

La Bodeguita, a small restaurant/bar in Havana is a popular stop for tourists
because of the people who frequented the bar:
Salvador Allende, poet Pablo Neruda, and writer Ernest Hemingway,
who lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1960.

After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the government shut down many bars and casinos because of their association with drugs and prostitution. Banks and businesses were expropriated and the buying and selling of private property outlawed. (Note: The buying and selling of private property has since been re-legalized, in November 2011.) Nationalization of U.S. properties in Cuba, mass executions of members of the former regime, and fear of Communist insurgencies because the new Cuba government had the the backing of the Soviet Union led to deterioration of relations with the U.S. The U.S. imposed a commercial, economic, and financial embargo. It became illegal for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba in all but a few specialized circumstances.

Cuba building with Che

Images of Che Guevara, a major figure in the Cuban Revolution, were found in many places and a staple on souvenir t-shirts

Tourism did not disappear after the Revolution, but Cuban leader Fidel Castro downplayed it and many tourist facilities fell into disrepair. Most of the tourists during the 1960s and 1970s were from Soviet Bloc countries. A renewed emphasis was placed on international tourism beginning in the late 1970s. New hotels were built. However, tourism did not take off in a big way until the late 1990s.

As the Soviet Union became to crumble, the Cuban economy collapsed. In 1990, Castro declared “A Special Period in Time of Peace”. Severe rationing was introduced. Castro looked to tourism to provide much needed income and courted foreign investment. The “Special Period” was extremely tough for Cubans, bordering on starvation, but the investor-friendly climate attracted outside investment. Hotels and resorts were built and a renewed tourism industry launched.

(For an interesting perspective on the “Special Period” time in Cuban history, read the memoir Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin. The book is about her time in Havana when her husband was posted there in the early 1990s.)

Veradero street

View of Varadero street from restaurant patio.
Veradero is a resort town in the one of the largest resort areas in Cuba

Today Cuba gets over two million tourists a year. The majority stay in all-inclusive resorts along the beach. Locals do not have access to the resorts, other than working in them. Except for an occasional tour outside the resort and interaction with staff, many visitors do not see much of Cuba and have little contact with Cubans.

I too stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The previous year had been an intense and traumatic one. I relished the thought of laying on the beach with few decisions to make. I did make it out of the resort a few times and was struck by the country’s natural beauty, the vestiges of past glory, an easy-going but controlled feel, and an other-worldly strangeness.

One of the things contributing to a feeling of strangeness for me was the lack of American tourists. Like the majority of Canadians, I’ve lived most of my life in close proximity to the American border. American broadcasting is on my television airways; American movies are at the theatre. And when I travel, either to the U.S. or elsewhere, I usually encounter Americans. In Cuba, I felt as if I’d entered another world.

Old car in Cuba

Everything I’d read about the old cars in Cuba turned out to be true.
Thousands of American cars were brought into Cuba up to 1960, when the embargo was instituted. Cubans have found ways to keep these cars going without being able to import parts from the U.S.

Jobs in the tourism industry were highly sought after, with slightly better pay and opportunity for tips. We rented scooters one afternoon. The person in charge of scooter rentals at the hotel was a trained professional (after all these years I don’t remember the profession exactly, but think he might have been a doctor) who made more money renting scooters to tourists. 

Cuban golf course

Golf course catering to tourists

In 1993, during the “Special Period”, Castro legalized U.S. dollars. Cubans with relatives abroad could receive remittances from them. Several shops sprang up operating in U.S. dollars, catering to tourists and offering non-essentials not available in government ration shops. When I visited in 2004, we joked about carrying wads of U.S. one dollar bills to tip just about anyone we came in contact with.

Veradero craft market

Craft market in Varadero – catering to tourists in the nearby resorts

Late in 2004, Castro announced U.S. currency notes would no longer be accepted, blaming the U.S. administration for restrictions on amounts sent to Cubans by Cuban-American relatives and attempts to prevent international banks from providing Cuba with dollars. Instead the Cuban convertible peso (CUP) was introduced and pegged at par with the U.S. dollar. It is the currency used by visitors to the island. Cuban pesos are the currency used by locals. Neither currency is traded internationally, which means currency exchange must be done within Cuba. Neither currency is allowed to be taken out of the country.

Cuban scenery

View from bus window en-route to Havana

Havana Capitol Building

Havana Capitol Building

One of the highlights of my trip to Cuba was a visit to Havana. The only word I can think of to describe the city is “surreal”. The streets were filled with a mixture of vintage cars, newer taxis and buses, people on bicycles, and bicycle taxis. Although the facades of many buildings were faded and in need of repair, the grandeur of a past time was visible. Buildings which had been spruced up sat next to ones dearly in need of loving care. 

Havana architecture

A sampling of the beautiful architecture of Havana, in varying states of repair

Plaza Vieja

Entrance to Plaza Vieja in old Havana

Art for sale along Havana beachfront

Art for sale along Havana beachfront

Cuban sugar cane field

In a sugar cane field.
Cuba was once the world’s largest exporter of sugar

Aldea Taina

Aldea Taina, a recreation of a native Arawakan Indian Village
with sculptures by artist Rita Longa.
(this is located on an island that we reached via what I thought was a scary motorboat ride into open waters with a boat that had two speeds – dead stop and super-fast)

How the easing of relations between Cuba and the U.S. will unfold is still unclear. However that happens, I wonder what changes the next decade will bring. Cuban restrictions on the import of cars have already been loosened. Will that, combined with the possibility of being able to import some goods from the U.S., lead to the end of the iconic vintage cars in Cuba? Will U.S. tourists flock to Cuba? If so, how will that change the Cuban tourism industry? Will there be more hotels and resorts built? Will the price of a Cuban vacation increase? How will the changes affect the Cuban people? Will life become easier for them? Will they see more freedom? Or will the existing gap between those with access to tourist dollars and those without widen? Time will tell.

Veradero Beach

Veradero Beach

Have you been to Cuba? What did you think? Will you travel to Cuba?

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PIN ITA visit to Cuba - beaches, Havana, sugar cane, crafts, an Indian village

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  80 Responses to “Contemplating Cuba”

  1. I have always wanted to visit Cuba. I am intrigued by their music scene. Having lived in Miami for several years, I really feel for the Cuban people. Some of your photos (particularly the one with the orange building) remind me of Chile where I lived for three years. I lived very close to one of Pablo Neruda’s homes and find it touching that you mention both Neruda (an idle of mine) and Salvador Allende in your post. I have met many Americans who have visited Cuba by flying there from Canada or Mexico. I do hope to one day to visit Cuba. I have been told that I speak Spanish with a Cuban accent which is not surprising since I learned much of the language while living in Miami.

    • I too like Cuban music. It’s interesting how we pick up the accents of whoever teaches us a language. I hope you get to Cuba one day. I’d like to get to Chile one day.

  2. From someone from the United states that has never been to Cuba, your post and details of your trip are a fascinating glimpse inside a long forbidden world. It will be interesting to see how it plays out and how the changes will affect tourism. It would be nice to visit to see it as it is now though. It sounds so interesting. I hope to be able to visit there some day.

  3. I love your pictures and I find it fascinating that there are so many vintage cars in Cuba. As someone from the US, I’ve never known anyone who has vacationed and Cuba and I really have never thought of Cuba as a vacation destination. It shows how the part of the world where you reside can really shape your perception. It sounds like many Canadians really take advantage of all Cuba has to offer. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  4. Cuba – a place I must visit!

    Thank you for providing an insight into your time there. The photographs are amazing, particularly the electric blue car.

  5. Hi Donna. Your photos are great. I love the old cars. Cuba is a popular destination for people living in the Maritimes, but I have never been. One of these days!

  6. Hi Donna, Cuba has always been a place that fascinated me and your article has filled me in on details not found anywhere else. I have never been to Cuba but I know many people who have and they all loved it. From what I heard, the tourist was king with every demand met. The part about the cars was interesting – my husband had just read about the same thing in a novel and we admired the Cuban ingenuity in keeping these cars going. Must have been quite something to see these old cars running around. Thanks for sharing this most interesting post about Cuba.

  7. I have not been to Cuba, but it has always held an interest for me . I just love these photos Donna! It will be interesting to see how this new situation with the US unfolds and how it will affect tourism to Cuba in the future. It’s a little tough unraveling all the politics of the situation right now!!

  8. Luckily citizens of other countries but the USA were never affected by a travel ban on Cuba. For Germans and other Europeans Cuba has been a cheap destination for over two decades.

    • There were a lots of Europeans, including a significant number of Germans, at the resort I stayed at. Lots of Canadians too – it’s been an affordable winter getaway for them.

  9. What a fantastic historical overview, thanks for sharing this information, I am very interested in seeing Cuba in it’s current state before it starts its major trending into new travel hot spot.

  10. Looks great! All friends of mine who have been to Cuba loved it.

    Sanctions against Cuba is ludicrous. Cuba isn’t a threat to any other nation. To still have an embargo because of the missiles in the early 60’s is completely wrong. The Republicans in the US who want to keep the sanctions are just acting out of revenge for what their families lost more than 50 years ago.

    • i know people who have gone back several times – it’s a favourite winter destination. There are certainly a variety of opinions about the embargo and it is interesting to read the various points of view. I think there is some truth in what you say about revenge for what was lost. Another part of the discussion is about human rights. However, the U.S. deals with other countries where human rights issues exist without embargoes.

  11. I know many people have already made this comment, but Cuba has always fascinated me. Maybe because of the way the country has been portrayed in movies and television. I’ve also had the pleasure to work in Cuban neighborhoods in the US and have found the people to be delightful and family oriented. I hope I have the opportunity to visit. Wold you post a few links to resorts Donna?

    • I hope you get to visit too. It’s been a number of years since I was there. We stayed at the Sol Palmeras resort in Varadero. It is part of the Melia chain of resorts. (We liked the resort.) Varadero is a peninsula with many resorts on it. But there are resorts on several other parts of the island as well, including in the Havana area.

  12. I learned so much from your post. It is so interesting to hear this information from someone who has visited. Your pictures are excellent and your narrative so educations!!

  13. This post was timely as we’ve been reading and researching a trip to Cuba either through the back door (Mexico) or the “People-to-People” program which is the US approved vehicle for US citizen visas to Cuba. The People-to-People program is outrageously expensive ($6,000/pp for the tour we were interested in) and their groups are large so they’re not something we’re interested in. We’ll be watching closely in the next couple of months to see if travel restrictions ease in case we can make a trip there before we head to Europe late in the Spring.

  14. Beautiful photos and timely history about Cuba! I’ve been to Cuba a few times and hope to go back and explore some of the less-known regions.

  15. Thank you for this comprehensive post. Your photos, particularly of the cars, are wonderful! I know quite a few Americans who have visited Cuba over the last decade or so. One is a good friend who leads tours for Americans; she is returning in a few weeks. We Americans just have had to go through Mexico or Canada first. Pete and I are thinking about visiting, but with our current plans it will probably be next winter before we get there. By then, I’m sure there will be many more options available for the independent kind of travel we prefer. During the early days of the embargo in the 1960’s, our family church in Michigan sponsored a refugee couple who had made the journey by boat to Florida. My parents remained friends with them for more than 30 years, even after they returned to live with extended family in Miami. As you might imagine, their version of political events is slightly different than the “official.”

    • I can well imagine that your friends’ version was different than the “official”. It will be interesting to see how and if travel restrictions for Americans are eased.

  16. I personally think that normalization of relations with Cuba is long overdue. There is no reason why that should have been the last battleground of the cold war, especially with so many Cubans living in the United States. The northern New Jersey area where I live has one of the largest populations of people of Cuban descent outside of Florida. I truly look forward to the day when I can freely visit Cuba and hope that involves getting around and seeing the island, not just an enclosed resort. Among many other reasons for wanting to visit, I love Cuban food. Your pictures of Havana make it look completely fascinating. Great post, Donna.

  17. Donna, as a frequent visitor to Key West, FL I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba. The day before President Obama announced easing of sanctions our oldest son came home to discuss an opportunity to spend ten days on a student trip. While we thought the price steep for the experience he now is desperate to get there before “we swoop in and ruin the country.”

  18. Very nice look back on the history of traveling to Cuba. We certainly hope to visit some day.

  19. What a fascinating post! Thanks for sharing this history of Cuba and also the details of your visit. Did I miss the circumstance of your visiting Cuba?

    • Thanks Irene. No, you did not miss the circumstance of visiting Cuba. My trip was over 10 years ago before we knew each other. The year before had been intense with both my parents becoming ill and dying. That winter I needed a vacation with lots of R and R.

  20. I would definitely love to visit Cuba someday. When I used to have my students do a research paper on their dream vacation, Cuba was always in the mix. The info is this post blows those research papers away though 😉

  21. Really interesting post. I have always wanted to visit Cuba, it looks so pretty. Ever since Obama’s announcement, I’ve been feeling anxious that I won’t get to visit before everything changes there.

  22. Hello Donna
    I was a wonderful post. I got a lot of information about Cuba and its tourism and history. I do not know much about Cuba but when we faced 8th Oct 2005 earthquake in Kashmir with 7.8 magnitude. Many doctors from Cuba came to help people. They were very nice and skilled. So I was always thinking to read about Cuba and today I got the chance to read about this forbidden place.
    It looks so nice and all pictures are amazing. A lot of information about Cuba, it shows that you really enjoyed your trip 11 years ago.
    I was wondering though, why locals do not have access to resorts??

    Thank you for a great post.

    • Cuba’s medical services have a good reputation and Cuba actively promotes itself as a destination for medical tourism. As to why locals did not have access to resorts, I don’t know. The regime had been fairly repressive. I’ve read that in the last couple of years, those restrictions have either been removed or eased. What that works out to in practical terms I don’t know, whether special permissions are needed or not for example. And although Cuba is popular with Canadians and Europeans because it is relatively inexpensive, prices at many of the resorts may be out of reach for many Cubans.

  23. I’m a huge fan of cuban music and I’m so happy about the work Ry Cooder did preserving it. Even had a chance to see some live here in Finland where I live. I friend just returned from Havana last week. He says it’s a huge outdoor museum, so I’m not surprised your old photos don’t seem old at all.

  24. Very enjoyable article Donna. I have to admit Cuba isn’t on my travel list for the future, but only because there are already several topping my list of goals. Still, since my background is in travel I’m fascinated by the new opportunities and look forward to seeing if the country embraces the new opportunities. Thanks for the enjoyable read!

  25. How enjoyable to share your long-ago visit to Cuba with you. The photos are especially interesting. I’ve never been but am definitely interested.

  26. This is a great article and so timely! Cuba is at the top of our list for 2015 – especially their stellar areas of medical tourism. Thanks for the recommendation of Tattlin’s book – it’s always nice to get a perspective from someone who has lived there.

  27. The thing I remember about Cuba is the vintage cars and how they could not get parts for them. They would create parts from scratch, or make a part from a different car fit. It was actually pretty impressive to see how they kept this old cars running.

  28. Looks like you had a great trip to Cuba! For some reason it is not on my to go to list. It just hasn’t drawn me in yet but your pictures of it making it a little more tempting.

  29. Thanks, Donna, for this thorough overview of the situation in Cuba. The U.S. recognition of Cuba is long overdue. Cuba was once a thriving country . It’s sad that its citizens have suffered economically and politically for so many years. Surprisingly, there is still a vibrant visusal and performing arts community. Many of the world’s greatest ballet dancers have come from Cuba.

  30. I’m looking forward to going to Cuba! I hope that will be soon, before it is too full of Americans:)

  31. As a Canadian, we know many folk who’ve visited Cuba! (Alas, we haven’t yet) We hear that if you really want to experience some of the culture, you have to tack on a few days before or after your all-inclusive resort (which is where many visitors to Cuba stay on vacation) and visit Havana.

    • I would like to go back and explore more of the island outside the resorts. I just did a day trip to Havana and it would be a fascinating place to spend a few days in.

  32. Cuba would be great to visit and I’m wondering if many historical places are still there or also crumbling. My husband was in the Navy and saw the beaches of Cuba when his ship rescued American hostages taken by Fidel. That’s as close as we’ve been so far to this interesting country.

  33. This is one special post, so informative. We have never placed Cuba in our bucket list. Maybe now we can.

  34. This is a fascinating look at Cuba through your eyes. I’d love to visit Havana. I like your description of it as surreal — that’s kind of the sense I’ve gotten from some pics. A friend of mine went there a couple of years ago on some sort of educational program and her stories of the people and places are so interesting.

  35. I have never been to Cuba. Since it’s never been an option it isn’t even on my bucket list. It will be interesting to see what if any changes will take place now. Thanks for the historical perspective and the photos.

  36. Cuba has been on our list for ages! Thanks for sharing your insights!

  37. I would love to visit Cuba. The vintage cars would be amazing to see in person. Great post.

  38. I have often thought about going to Cuba. I think it would be a amazing place to visit. You touched on a lot of history that makes it that more interesting. Also great pictures.

  39. Very timely post Donna. I will be going in February and can’t wait. I feel so lucky to be visiting before things change in a big way. It still feels like the country is frozen in time, and I don’t think that will last for very much longer.

  40. Hi Donna. I’ve been to Cuba several times and have traveled from one end of the island to the other. I love the pride of the people in their own history & culture. I truly wish the US would lift their sanctions. Not so that Americans can visit, but so that the Cuban economy will have a chance to re-establish itself.

    • Doreen, it’s been a number of years since I visited Cuba. I’ve recently been thinking it must be time to plan another trip there.

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