Saturday, 30 January 2016

Havana, a city set for change

For generations #Cuba has been a tantalizing prospect for American travellers, always just out of reach across the Straits of Florida. Now, with restrictions on travel beginning to lift, the rapidly growing flows of tourists to the capital #Havana risk destroying what makes the city so vibrant. Chris O’ Toole of Breaking Travel News found a city on the cusp of resurrection.

‘Cuban tourism has been doing just fine without the US’

WHILE the long-standing ban on travel to the Caribbean islands has been partially lifted, American visitors must still participate in group tours that allow ‘people to people’ contact. American guests must still travel with a Cuban tour operator, and one recognized by the US State Department at that, while purely recreational activities – such as like visiting the beach or scuba diving – remain off limits. US citizens still cannot simply hop on a flight or book a hotel.

To a certain extent, however, these developments are a sideshow to the real story; Cuban tourism has been doing just fine without the US. Almost three million international visitors touched down during 2014, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, with the numbers set to increase when the data is released for 2015 later this year. This puts Cuba behind only the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico among Caribbean holiday hotspots and ahead of other powerhouses such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Aruba. 

Canada, Germany, the UK, and Spain have all seen big increases in holidaymakers visiting Cuba in recent years, while Mexico and Russia are also growing source markets. Chinese guests, too, are set to play an important role in the future of the tourism sector in the destination.

But is the island ready for an influx of visitors should the US loosen restrictions further? With even President Obama himself rumoured to be considering a visit during his final year in office, what is the situation like on the ground? During a recent visit, the picture certainly appeared mixed.

Visitors from Europe will be pleased to find international standard hotels in the streets surrounding the Capitol. But below this tier there is a total absence of mid-scale properties. There is tremendous potential, as political barriers come down, for international accommodation providers to flourish in Havana as guest numbers grow.

Of course, the majority of visitors continue to stay in ‘casas particulares’, private houses, generating wealth for local residents. But (extremely) variable standards and a difficulty in booking ahead of time can make these unsuitable for holidaymakers looking for convenience or benchmark standards.

Put this concern aside though, and Cuba is ripe for growth, and for those who do land in Havana, much awaits.

The forts of Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, and Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro dominate the harbour entrance, offering a very affordable grounding in the colourful history of the city. The ancient battlements illuminate the role Spanish, British, and eventually American forces played in shaping modern Cuba, tracing the island’s development back to the arrival of the first European settlers in the 16th century.

‘Here, lives are lived on the street; Havana’s Old Town has not become a museum’

From the modern era, the Museo de la Revolucion offers a somewhat lopsided perspective on the recent history of the country, revealing how the Castro revolution of 1953-59 ejected American influences and moved Cuba into the Soviet orbit. The repercussions of these events are still being felt, with Havana now finally emerging from half a century of decline.

Here, lives are lived on the street; Havana’s Old Town has not become a museum, as is so often the case, with local residents still outnumbering the gawping tourists. The iconic ‘yank tanks’ – a term used only in guidebooks - splutter along the streets, those endlessly repaired American vehicles from before the embargo. These work horses of the city still perform a vital role, some 60 years since they first took to the road, revealing just how isolated the country has been in recent years. Few new vehicles are on the roads, with Soviet-era Ladas making up the majority of the traffic.

For guests trained on American excess or European style, Havana might come as a little bit of a shock. A smattering of cutting edge restaurants – including Café O’Reilly and Paladar Doña Eutemia – are reviving the traditions of Caribbean cooking, but away from the main sights, expect a diet of cheese sandwiches and strong rum. Local beer is cheap and plentiful, if a little flavourless. Rum, though, is the staple diet, and easier to get hold of than bottles of water, or indeed nearly anything else.

The old adage of ‘going before Castro’ no longer applies – to see a city being re-born, now is the time to go. With direct flights set to resume in the near future, and Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator, also revealing plans to begin Cuba sailings from May, the capital is taking its place on the international tourist trail. To see what makes it so special, do not delay.

Go Holiday news :

Picture Credit: Cuba LaHavana Street by Christophe Meneboeuf - Own workMore of my work on my photoblog: Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons,Panorámica de La Habana by Brian Snelson from Hockley, Essex, England - Old Havana. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons, Cuban cars by Helene84 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

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