Cuba is at a pretty unique moment in time. Obama was there a few days ago. Travel restrictions have been and continue to be loosened. Private enterprise is blossoming and an influx of foreign investment will accelerate the shift towards a market economy. Everything is changing very rapidly.
This is without question a good thing for the average Cuban. But what about the average traveler?
Those keen to experience “the real Cuba” — one of just a handful of countries not integrated into the global economy — might be thinking “better get there before it’s too late” or something along those lines. The specter of “Americanization” looms large in Cuba these days. Is it for real? Yes and no.
Cuba has been a popular destination for Europeans and Canadians for many years, so it’s already far less “untrodden” than you might think. That Cuba has been cultivating a tidy little travel industry and that curious travelers have already discovered its charms is not what you expected. You feel initially a little disappointed when you find yourself in the Plaza de Armas and overhear German tourists bartering in English with Cubans hawking some Soviet-era commemorabilia, or when you wander into Hemingway’s old haunt, La Floridita, late in the afternoon and it’s packed to the gills with other travelers.
And then you have a conversation with a Cuban. A student at the university. A taxi driver. A group of teens on the Malecon. And you realize that this is all very new. Sure, there were visitors before. “Political tourists” back in the early 90s, and then Canadians looking for a beach holiday. And, of course, the French who always seem to be at least one step ahead of the Americans when it comes to the next new destination. But this is different. It’s a function of both volume of visitors, but, more importantly, the thawing of US-Cuba relations and the changing economic situation on the island.
The entire island has only 60,000 hotel rooms. New York City, by comparison, has over 100,000. Old Havana will never feel like Times Square, but how Cuba manages the expected influx of US visitors is critical. The travel industry is a microcosm of the broader economic forces that will fundamentally alter Cuba, for better or worse. Those fearing a McDonalds on every corner shouldn’t be worried. Cubans may want the political and economic freedom of the US, but they don’t want cheap consumer culture.
Cuba bridges continental Europe and the Americas. It’s cultural and political leanings are more European than they are American. Cuba pokes holes in many of the assumptions citizens of “successful” market democracies take as truths. Cubans are widely enthusiastic about the new era of US-Cuba relations, but to imagine a 21st Century Cuba as just another developing country eager to tap into America’s biggest exports – culture and financial capital -grossly misunderstands Cuba.
Among American travelers, Cuba is still very much an unusual passport stamp to have. And given the remarkable history between the two countries, to be an American traveling there now is to be an ambassador of this new era. And, more importantly, a student of it.
We’re blazing new ground in Cuba this summer, and we are looking for intellectually curious teens who want to join us.