New Frontiers: An American’s Guide to Cuba

New Frontiers: An American’s Guide to Cuba

This post is part of a retrospective series exploring business, tourism and politics in Cuba today.

Interest in Cuba is growing exponentially as the island country reopens to U.S. travelers—a close yet other-worldly curiosity American tourists shouldn’t miss.

PMTS’ CEO had a rare opportunity to visit the country last month, as part of a plastics industry delegation led by the Society of Plastics Industry (SPI). His visit offers a snapshot into life on the island from a tourist’s perspective.

Scenic Old Havana is colorful and culturally vibrant.

One of the main tenets propping up the Cuban economy is tourism, a burgeoning industry predicted to grow by 83 percent over the next five years. During his meeting with Cuba’s Ministry of Industry, Sholtis said the importance of increased tourism was noted. Demand for lodging far outnumbers the supply, and the country plans to increase the number of hotel rooms by 70 percent in five years. Starwood Hotels and Resorts recently signed a deal to run two hotels in Cuba, the first American hotel company to do so in over 60 years. The Starwood properties will be the only non-state-owned hotels in Cuba thus far.

Multiple options are emerging for cruises to Cuba from American ports, including Carnival Cruises and the higher-end Tauck cruise line. Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 of rum and $100 worth of cigars. Traveler’s note: if you are bringing back rum, check it in your luggage or purchase at the airport duty-free shop to avoid customs delays.

A commercial airline agreement reached in December allows American air carriers to offer 20 flights per day to Havana. But for now, chartered flights are the primary option. There are also only 12 USA government-approved reasons to visit Cuba at this time. Sholtis flew on an American Airlines plane departing out of Miami, and said tourists should be aware that the Havana airport is pretty dated, basic and small. Cuban airplanes can be seen on the sidelines of the runways, grounded due to lack of parts and available servicing. Expect to walk down stairs for deplaning, and to wait a long while for luggage. It’s pretty typical to find bathrooms with three out of the four toilets out of order. Surprisingly, the arrival experience with customs and immigration was pleasant and moved fairly quickly, Sholtis said.

Alternative lodging options are cropping up in Cuba, including bed-and-breakfast style accommodations. Many Cuban cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) are now able to offer room or home rentals as private citizens. Sholtis said one member of the plastics trade delegation from SPI stayed in a bed-and-breakfast home in the embassy neighborhood, which was an ok option with fairly Spartan accommodations.

El Gran Teatro de la Habana (Great Theatre of Havana, left), next door to the Hotel Inglaterra (right).

Airbnb is also linking homeowners on the island with tourists needing a place to staynearly 4,000 Cubans listed homes or rooms since the service began last yearthough many may not stack up to American standards (e.g. reliable running water, electricity, etc.; read more about that here).

Note that you cannot drink the water in Cuba—plan to purchase bottled water. There are only a few breweries in Cuba, so the local beer supply chain is being stretched with the increased volume of thirsty American tourists. Also, be aware that many tropical diseases are present around the island, so be prepared to stay safe from mosquitos with bug repellent.

Opportunities to understand more of Cuban history abound, whether viewing artifacts conserved in museums, or walking through to see the revolutionary statues, flags, posters and murals dotting the landscape. State tour guides and drivers will take you to approved cultural sites, all while keeping a watchful eye—tourists generally cannot roam the island unaccompanied. Typically, American tourists are enrolled on people-to-people tours or other cultural visits.

Rural areas of Cuba are pristine and unexplored, making excellent excursions for naturalists—especially bird enthusiasts. Both eco- and urban tourism are becoming increasingly popular on the island. Emphasis is being placed on responsible development and ecotourism, similar to Costa Rica. In talking with other tourists, Sholtis said he was told the beaches, fishing and diving are among the best in the Caribbean.

El Malecón in Havana, a 5-mile-long esplanade along the seawall. Several statues and monuments are found along this broad, coastal walkway.

Old Havana is a magnet for cultural experiences, delighting tourists with authentic Cuban restaurants, world-famous mojito bars, cigar shops and fantastic musicians inside and outdoors. Enjoy a mojito and a Cohiba cigar in the lobby of the historic Hotel Parque Central, or walk the Malecón, a 5-mile seawall and esplanade. Food can be hit or miss, but seafood restaurants catering to American tourists can be fantastic, and most offer excellent live music. Sholtis said he enjoyed a delicious lobster, black bean and rice meal in Old Town for about $10 USD.

Entering Cuba is still like walking straight into 1950. Classic cars—beautifully maintained and brightly painted—rumble down bumpy roads. The architecture looks like ancient colonial ruins in some places, while other areas are getting some needed attention with recent construction. Three years ago, Cubans were granted permission to buy their own homes, so some updating and constructing is apparent. If you make it out to the backcountry agricultural areas, you’ll find some villages do not have stores, and the only transportation is on horseback or by carriage and oxen.

Sholtis said he was able to visit Hemingway Marina, a tourist Port of Call near Havana. Several Canadian sailboats were docked, visiting on holiday. Boating visitors are hosted by the marina, whether for fishing tournaments or repair stops for in-transit boats.

Cuba is an island in transition—firmly planted in the past while moving swiftly into its future—which makes for an unprecedented adventure for American tourists.