Should it really cost $500 a day or more to visit Cuba, one of the world's poorest countries?
I asked that question last year when the Obama administration eased travel restrictions for American tourists. Up until that time, the only way most Americans could legally visit Cuba was on an expensive "People to People" group tour sponsored by an operator licensed by the U.S. government.
That changed with new rules allowing travelers to put together their own independent educational trips for the purpose of learning about Cuban people and their culture.
Among the beneficiaries were the Cuban people who run bed and breakfasts in their homes (many now part of the Airbnb system), private restaurants and small businesses catering to independent travelers.
It's beyond me whom the Trump administration thinks will be hurt or helped by reversing this policy.
Somehow someone (Little Marco, perhaps) came up with the idea that a crack-down on independent travel would cause the Castro government to suffer to the point that it would meet U.S. demands for political reforms.
But as the Washington Post pointed out recently, the new rules will have just the opposite effect. Herding Americans back to the types of prepackaged, predictable group tourism that the Cuban government actually prefers will not only help further its political agenda, it will increase the amount it earns in tourism revenue by taking business away from Cuban entrepreneurs who cater to independent travelers.
The latest moves do little more than placate a minority of hard-line Florida Cuban-American conservatives demanding payback for their political backing. If it's media hype they were looking for, it's media hype they got in the form of headlines and front-page news stories. Rather than negotiate a "better deal," Trump fell back on divisive rhetoric aimed at disparaging Obama rather than making any substantive changes that might improve relations or the lives of Cuban people.
Embassies in Washington and Havana will stay open, and cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected. Cuban-Americans are still free to travel to the island and send money to relatives, and travelers can still bring back large quantifies of rum and cigars. According to one White House official, the administration does not intend to “disrupt” existing business deals such as one struck under Obama by Starwood Hotels, which is owned by Marriott International Inc, to manage a historic Havana hotel.
It's true, the new rules aim to ban or limit Americans from patronizing military-linked businesses, estimated to control more than half of the island’s tourist economy. Travel representatives are hoping to get around this by redirecting their business to hotels run by civilian organizations, although it's unclear what difference that will make since the Cuban government ultimately benefits from almost all business transactions through licensing fees and taxes.
Bottom line: Yes, you'll still be able to visit Cuba legally - for a price. An eight-day, seven-night "Classic Cuba'' tour offered by InsightCuba, for example, costs $4,895, or $611 per day, not including air fare. Contrast those costs with a $500 Seattle-Havana air fare on Alaska Airlines and seven nights in a $50- per- night Airbnb in a private Cuban home. Throw in a generous $75- a- day for meals, museums and mojitos, and you're still under $1,500 for an independent trip.
|Cuban B&B hosts will suffer under new restrictions on independent travel|
Most tour operators work hard to create meaningful itineraries. Nevertheless, they are bound by Cuban and U.S. requirements, licenses and fees that drive up costs.
If you're considering a tour, best advice is to compare various itineraries to find one that fits your interest and budget. Consider trips offered by non-profits, such as Global Exchange, or organizations such as Road Scholar which offers educational trips for people over 50.
Even on tour, it's possible to find ways to meet ordindary Cubans and experience a bit of real life away from the group.
A few ideas:
Enter the Cuban economy
Familiarize yourself with Cuba’s dual currency system. You’ll be exchanging dollars for convertible pesos (CUCs), a “hard currency” worth $1 each, minus a 10 percent exchange tax, a tit-for-tat for the U.S. embargo against Cuba. You can avoid the 10-percent tax by bringing either euros or Canadian dollars.
One of the hardest concepts for outsiders to grasp is that most Cubans are paid a government salary of about $20 per month, earned in the local currency, called pesos Cubanos or CUPs (worth about 4 cents each). Education, housing and health care are free. CUPs buy the basics: cooking oil, cheap meals, coffee cut with pea flour. But much of what the average Cuban wants and needs — drinkable coffee, washing machines, materials to fix up their homes — is only available to those who can pay in hard currency. (Tourism and money sent by relatives in the U.S. are the main sources).
To get a sense of everyday Cuban life, tip in convertibles, but for a truly local experience, change $5 into pesos Cubanos, and enter government-subsidized Cuba. Buy a 4-cent ice-cream cone, or patronize one of the fledgling entrepreneurs selling pizza and pastries for pennies from their kitchen windows.
|Waiting in line at La Coppelia is a Havana tradition|
Havana's famous La Coppelia ice cream parlor, a sprawling outdoor complex where Cubans line up by the hundreds, accepts only CUPs, except in a tiny area walled off for tourists. Use your CUPs and join the local fun.
It's an ideal place for foreigners can mix with Cubans who don't have something to sell or aren't working in the tourist industry. Many tourists miss this real La Coppelia experience, however, because the guards steer foreigners to a separate "hard currency'' area where two scoops served in a glass dish cost around $2.75.
Explore Habana Centro
Get off-the-beaten path: Tourists see Havana's renovated Habana Vieja (Old Havana), but for a feel for what living here like for most people, walk through a neighborhood like Havana Centro, where kids play ball in the crumbling streets, and people sell snacks through open windows.
Follow the bloggers
Learn about Cuba’s changing economy and differing views about life under
Raul Castro. Follow blogs by Cuban activists on Translating Cuba.
Blogger Reinaldo Escobar made a prediction on the day before Trump's speech announcing his policy changes.
"The magnate will make the announcement into a spectacle like so many he has starred in since he has been at the head of the greatest power on earth," Reinaldo wrote. "He will gesticulate, commit himself to human rights and elicit enthusiastic applause, but then he will return to the White House and the Island will fall off his agenda."
The applause will die down. The headlines will be replaced by new news. Meanwhile, thousands of Europeans, Australians and Asians will continue to travel freely to Cuba. Everyone that is, except us.
For more ideas, photos and snapshots of everyday life in Cuba, I invite you to see my full Cuba blog.