I recently returned from my second trip to the Caribbean island. Cuba has never failed to capture my curiosity or imagination, an island whose grandeur and richness in terms of culture and history extends well beyond its size.
A series of events on the world stage, specifically the evolution of the Cuba-U.S. relationship, have been catalysts for recent growth in tourism on the island. Cuban tourism increased by 23 percent in the first half of 2017. July is supposedly the quiet season, yet every street of Old Havana suggested otherwise.
The romantic Cuba is not lost...
There is a sense of urgency among tourists to see the 'real' Cuba before things change. This urgency is often driven by the notion that Cuba is on the verge of impending drastic transformation.
The island has undergone much transformation over the past three decades and the present urgency felt by tourists is perhaps more of a reflection of our own neoliberal anxieties (a product of our fast-paced, intensely competitive and materialistic society) toward the general global pace of change, than the realities on the island.
The current pace of the Cuban transition remains moderate due to many reasons, including a history of political durability even in the face of international and domestic economic crises, and Trump's recent policy towards Cuba which reasserted that the U.S. embargo will remain firmly in place.
So, for those of you planning to travel to Cuba in the near future, fear not, the vintage cars, cigars and salsa are not going anywhere...
Cuba remains as 'real' as ever, and tourists are not exempt from experiencing glimpses of local realities, whether this be the electricity shortages in state-run hotels or chatting to Cuban locals, who are more than eager to share their stories.
A taste of Caribbean life...
Cuban culture is inviting and exotic, Cuban food, however, can seem limited and bland to the Aussie traveller.
The urban food security crisis in Cuba dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, in which the country was plunged into the worst economic period of its history. Cuba has relied heavily on imports and the loss of the country's major trading partner caused widespread resource shortages (85 percent of Cuban trade was with the Soviet Union prior to 1991).
The crippling economic effects of this period arguably remain, as Cuba continues its quest towards self-sufficiency (in 2015 Cuba had a negative trade balance of $5.42 billion in net imports).
A recent article in the Cuban national newspaper,'Granma', highlighted the state's intention to improve the quality of local food production and to substitute imports. The severity of the current crisis in Venezuela would serve as a reminder to the Cubans of the importance of food security.
A smorgasbord of tourists.
The struggle to improve food production on the island has been compounded by the steady influx of tourists.
The advent of paladares (family operated restaurants) has enhanced variety. But, as a local paladar owner in Old Havana, Ricardo lamented, there is an ongoing tension between supply and demand, which subsequently leads to competition in differentiation and resourcefulness.
Be careful not to be seduced by tempting menu offerings, as it is not uncommon for multiple dishes to be unavailable. Nevertheless, it is key to keep the context in mind, as the Cuban capacity for any innovation in a culinary sense is to be admired.
A noteworthy development that sheds light on Cuban resourcefulness is the independent fruit and vegetable vendors. A form of entrepreneurship and also an attempt by the Cuban people to combat food shortages, these independent sellers are exemplars of the Cuban's ability to make do and adapt in the midst of economic hardship.
The perfect holiday to 'switch off'.
Switching off in Cuba is easy. Switching on, on the other hand, can prove to be difficult.
Connectivity in Cuba for tourists is still very challenging. Despite paying for a hotel, tourists still need to purchase Wi-Fi cards from the telecom company ETECSA. Internet is expensive and roaming was not an option. It is very much part of the tourist experience sitting in a hotel lobby or in a central plaza among the chatter of Cubans and tourists alike conversing on Skype or Facetime.
Digital communication on the island is very much a public affair. These shared experiences allow tourists to partake in some of the changes happening on the island. Changes that have been gradual, part of a broader transition over decades, not overnight.
The romantic side of Cuba remains for those tourists who envision nights of salsa and rum, but more importantly, change will not tarnish the 'realness' factor of a traveller's experience in Cuba, that depends largely on engagement with the locals -- a Spanish class or two is recommended.
Cuba is fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but mostly fabulous.
- Do not travel to Cuba on a U.S. carrier as you cannot apply for a tourist visa with the Australian Government.
- While Cuba is often referred to as a cash economy, ATMs are available on the island and are a cheaper alternative to changing AUD to Euros in order to exchange money at the casas de cambio. Do not change AUD to USD unless you are prepared to pay the 10 percent tax.
- I would highly recommend staying in casas particulares to spend time with locals.
- Trinidad is a must see!