Cuba is about to change. The last remnant of the Cold War, the frozen, embargoed and rhetoric-laden relationship between the United States and Cuba, is warming. President Obama visited Cuba in March 2016, the first sitting president to do so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of communist icon Fidel Castro, has promised to step down in 2018. President Castro has set in motion some reforms (though Cuban expats would love to see more of this), allowing people to start their own small businesses and sell their houses and cars.
First off, know this: US Citizens are allowed to go, it’s easy AND not everyone realizes this yet. There’s still a first-mover advantage to be had if you go now. Flying through Mexico City or Cancun is easy as can be. And not everyone realizes that “people-to-people” education is a valid reason to travel, making essentially every trip a justifiable one. We told United States immigration that we were in Havana when we re-entered the country and they didn’t bat an eye. If you’re already sold, check out our Making the Most Of Your Vacation Days: Cuba post!
With that out of the way, we can talk about the changes that are underway. They will be huge for Cubans, but they might not be so great for your experience of the country as a tourist. Here’s why:
- Swarms of American tourists are likely to overwhelm the country’s tourist infrastructure. The arrival of President Obama in March 2016 is a perfect taste of what’s to come. As Obama and a hoard of diplomats, businesspeople, and their retainers descended on Havana, the locals took to calling it “Hurricane Obama.” All hotels in historic Havana Vieja and trendy Vedado were sold out and it was impossible to find a cab on the street. Renting a car was a nightmare, as most of the inventory was dedicated to government employees or visiting dignitaries. Direct flights to Cuba from the mainland U.S. will start later this year, and then the rush is on. Get there before that.
- It’s easy enough to get around, but it still feels like an adventure. Cuba has really taken some strides in recent years to become more tourist friendly. Private restaurants have sprung up, and private B&Bs have been legalized and legitimized. In fact, Airbnb has launched in Cuba, meaning that it’s easy to plan ahead while still getting an authentic casa particular experience.
- Authentic experiences will be harder to come by. An amazing part of visiting Cuba is interacting with the locals, who legitimately seem interested in interacting with tourists (even Americans from the imperialist Estados Unidos). These chances at genuine interaction are likely to decrease as tourism takes up an even greater share of the economy. A great example of this can already be seen, as the charming and comfortable casa particular network of unique bed & breakfasts gives way to big box hotels. A Sofitel is going in one block from the Plaza Mayor in low-rise Trinidad. Get there before the gorgeous colonial skyline is changed forever.
- The classic pre-revolution cars will disappear. For more than 50 years, the Cuban government had banned the buying and selling of cars without special government permission unless the car was on the road before 1959. The government changed the law in 2011, allowing citizens to purchase new cars. The rush is already on, as you now see a bunch of new Kias, Hyundais, and Peugeots on the streets of Havana and elsewhere. As the automobile stock turns over, the classic cars of Cuba will go from necessity to tourist attraction, losing some of their charm and all of their ubiquity. Go now while you can still share the road with 1958 Chevy’s, ancient Ford trucks, horse carts and cowboys.
- Interactions with average Cubans will be replaced by interactions with hustlers. We’ve all been there. You walk down a main street in a foreign country and are verbally assaulted by persistent people trying to sell you something, get you in a taxi, or railroad you into their restaurant. These hustlers take away from the experience of a city. When we were in Cuba in early 2016, the streets of Havana, Vinales, Trinidad, Cienfuegos were remarkably free of hustlers. The result was a charming experience. As tourism grows, more and more people will be able to make a living from tourism and the number of hustlers – and likely their persistence – will increase.
- Prices are likely to rise. Cuba’s infrastructure was already feeling the strain in January of 2016, and it’s only going to get worse. The result will be price increases – simple economics dictate this. If you’re looking for a trip on a budget, the sooner you go to Cuba the better the deal you’ll get.
- You can tell your friends you’ve been to one of the NY Times top destinations for 2016 (probably before they get there themselves). This is the last reason on this list, but let’s be honest, it really should be the first reason.
Without a doubt, Cuba is going to change significantly in the next several years. Some of those changes will be positive for the country and the people, and those changes should be welcomed. For you though, it means that you should go to Cuba now. Check out our post on what to do in Cuba, what sights to see, and why you should definitely rent a car.