Guanabo beach on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (Photo: AP)
Malia Everett, the CEO of Altruvistas travel group had just flown back from Havana when she heard President Obama’s speech about normalizing relations with Cuba.
"I woke up elated," she said, before adding, "but I recognize the process is going to be a long one."
Americans who have long dreamed of legally traveling to Cuba to laze on the beach and return home with suitcases full of cigars and rum are also elated at the news of liberalized travel rules. But don’t light up that victory cigar yet, there still may be months to go before even the smallest changes take place.
“Operationally, no changes at all,” said Edward Piegza, President of Classic Journeys of his travel agency’s plans to continue coordination of their officially approved “Person to Person” (P2P) cultural tours to Cuba. These organized tours are currently among the few currently legal ways for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba. Representatives from Abercrombie & Kent, Grand Circle Foundation, and Latour who hold similar P2P licenses also confirmed to Yahoo Travel that for the time being it will be business as usual, with a cautious optimism for increased bookings.
People ride on horseback as others swim in the cool Caribbean waters of Mi Cayito beach, on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (Photo: AP)
The White House said it will be “facilitating an expansion of travel” under the existing categories, rather than entirely change the tourism rules, which only Congress can do. And the chances of Congress acting on this in the near term is virtually nil.
But the good news is that things are moving toward travel liberalization on both sides of the Florida Strait. According to the U.S. White House Fact Sheet, U.S. visitors to Cuba will be soon be able to return with $400 of goods, including $100 of alcohol (rum!) and tobacoo (cigars!). U.S. institutions will be allowed to operate credit and debit cards within Cuba, meaning visitors won’t have to bring wads of cash with them. On the Cuban side, economic liberalization means increased availability of tourism infrastructure like hotels, restaurants, and tour agencies (and maybe even toilet paper).
“This historic development reflects enormous potential to have a positive impact on tourism to Cuba, and in turn give American travelers an opportunity to experience first hand the rich Cuban culture,” said Richard Krieger, President of Isramworld, whose Latour group is anticipating expanded demand for their P2P programs.
While not much is expected to change right away, it is worth heading to Cuba sooner rather than later. (Photo: AP)
“We believe Americans will be keen to experience Cuba more than ever before,” predicted Dugald Wells, CEO of Canada-based Cuba Cruise, which hosts P2P programs on board their ship. And these P2P programs should have even more to offer visitors, assuming the Cuban government’s promises of increased access ring true. Having taken a P2P trip myself earlier this year, I can attest it is an interesting and rewarding (albeit expensive) way to experience Cuba.
You can also expect an increase in what is still technically illegal travel from the U.S.—visitors entering Cuba on their own through gateways in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, avoiding the costs of P2P cultural programs, which leave them free to sit and do nothing at the beach like European and Canadian visitors. Cuban immigration regularly allows U.S. visitors entry without stamping their passports, and U.S. officials will very rarely try to track down your whole itinerary, unless, say, you’re arriving in LAX from Mexico City carrying a case of Havana Club rum.
But don’t expect a tidal wave of new visitors to Cuba. “In the short to medium term, there’s just about no way that everybody can pile into Cuba,” said Classic Journeys’ Piegza, “The tourist infrastructure like hotels and airports are going to limit how easy it is to travel there. And that capacity is locked up contractually by many of the companies with existing P2P licenses.” Latin Excursions’ founder Eric Sheets says he expects Cuba visitor numbers to “eventually” jump from the 100,000 official U.S. visitors in 2012 to nearly one million visitors a year—assuming they all have somewhere to stay.
What about increasing that tourism capacity? Hilton Hotels Worldwide released a vaguely promising statement: “We welcome opportunities to continue our rapid growth…for guests in even more parts of the world, including Cuba if an agreement is reached with the U.S.. Our founder Conrad Hilton often spoke of ‘world peace through international trade and travel,” which remains just as important and core to our business today.”
It’s perhaps that thought of ‘world peace through travel’ that is getting people most excited about the recent announcement of normalized relations with Cuba. Altruvista’s Malia Everett said she “honestly cried because it is a long waited release for me personally and because of my extended family and friends on the island.”
Chris Baker, longtime Cuba guide and author of the upcoming 2015 Moon Guidebook to Cuba says the time to visit is now while Cuba “remains at its most pure. Nothing is going to get homogenized any time soon, but the pace of change is already beginning to quicken. I’m exhilarated!”