For decades, foreigners have been keen to see Cuba “before it changes”. But Cuba has been changing continuously, and many changes have been beneficial to both tourists and Cubans. Casas particulares, for example (government-regulated homestays), allow visitors to avoid often characterless, state-run hotels and stay with local families for a far more authentic experience. Private restaurants, called paladares, are also springing up, serving delicious, home cooked food.
But following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US, the changes have been bigger and faster. While some of the more ostentations symbols leave a rather bad taste in the mouth (a giant cruise ship acting as a backdrop to the 1950s cars on the Malecón, Chanel’s Havana fashion show which regular Cubans were not permitted to attend), at Responsible Travel we also welcome the freedoms that are now available to Cuban people, and the opportunities for them to become have much more control over their lives – as well as earning more than the typical monthly salary of US $15-30.
However, we also recognise that Cuba is in a period of very rapid transition. Its minimal tourism infrastructure has yet to catch up with the swelling numbers of arrivals (including Americans who can visit legally for the first time since 1960, as well as those who are rushing to visit before the anticipated ‘changes’ kick in); vacations are booked up often months in advance; and some visitors have been surprised at the number of other tourists they have encountered, particularly during high season. Cuba is still very much an alternative destination, however, with a crumbling infrastructure, still-high poverty levels, and lack of many essentials – from toiletries and medicines to clothes and furniture. While we still strongly encourage people to visit Cuba, and to do so responsibly, we also advise people to go with a very open mind. Casas are comfortable but they are not luxury hotels – they are someone’s home. What you want to eat may not always be on the menu, the internet is rubbish, and that 70-year-old Chevrolet will be noisy and smelly. But this is Cuba “before it changes” – and it also offers wonderful hospitality, seductive live music on every street corner, passionate dancing and Caribbean beaches without the high rises. It’s not a postcard-perfect Caribbean beach vacation, it’s a fully immersive and thoroughly unique life experience.