Cuba a Potential Destination for US Travelers—Thanks, Obama

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Break out the cigar—or simply buy one on your first (legal) trip to Cuba! It was recently reported that the Obama administration is loosening restrictions on travel to the island republic. According to The New York Times, the new changes would make it easier for academic, religious, and cultural groups to visit Cuba. We caught up with Cuba expert Brendan Sainsbury—author of Lonely Planet‘s Guide to Cuba and Havana City Guide—to get the 4-1-1 and see if this plan may actually come to fruition.

What are your thoughts on the Obama Administration’s recent announcement?

It will be an excellent and long overdue move if it comes off, and recent news suggests that it will. Creating greater interaction and understanding between Cubans and Americans can only be a good thing. Although the proposal on the table is relatively modest, we’re hoping that progress is made toward the ultimate prize – a complete end to the trade embargo and travel ban. But optimists should beware – this is Cuba; there have been many false dawns in the past.

Do you realistically think Americans will be allowed to visit Cuba?

Yes, but only limited amounts for the time being. The current proposal doesn’t involve a blanket lifting of the travel ban. It will merely allow more authorized trips from religious, educational, and sponsored groups. So, yes, more Americans will be allowed to visit Cuba legally, but not all Americans – at least not yet.

What are some of the “catches” that may prevent this plan from coming to fruition?

The current plan doesn’t require congressional approval, so there shouldn’t be too many catches at this stage. The real test further down the road will be to see if this policy will be a springboard to lift the travel ban completely. At this point the opposition – from Congress, interest groups, and some Cuban-Americans – will undoubtedly be harder to circumnavigate.

How would Americans cope with Cuba’s tourism infrastructure?

Cuba has been catering to non-American tourists for nearly 20 years – over 2 million of them annually – so a decent tourism infrastructure does exist, certainly enough to cope with any small influxes resulting from the current proposal. Lonely Planet’s introduction to Cuba provides a great overview for Americans curious about what Cuba has to offer. Varadero on the north coast is actually the largest resort in the Caribbean, with over 50 hotels, although the quality of its facilities is not quite on a par with other Caribbean destinations. But changes and improvements are coming: the Cuban government, apparently, is planning in anticipation of a complete lifting of the US travel ban, when up to 2 million Americans would be expected to visit in the first year. A recent proposal drew up plans for 10 new golf courses–there are currently only two on the whole island.

What are your favorite things about Cuba that should entice Americans?

Cuba’s overriding attraction is its uniqueness. Because of its recent history and complete isolation from the US, it has developed in a very independent way. There is no other country in the world remotely like it. Additionally, the Cubans, through years of hardship, haven’t just survived, they’ve retained their creativity and joie de vivre and this can be inspiring to see. Highlights for me, as outlined in my recent Lonely Planet Cuba Guide, are the music, Cuban inventiveness (keeping 50-yr-old American cars on the road despite having no spare parts), the Spanish colonial architecture, and the rich and well-preserved history (which reads at times like a Hollywood movie script). Americans will also love the beaches, fantastic diving opportunities, refreshing lack of commercialism, and important historical links between the two countries (everything from the Hemingway bars to the US-influenced Capitolio building).