My husband and I returned from our anniversary cruise to Key West and Havana, Cuba on Saturday. This was just days before new tightening of restrictions were announced yesterday on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba. I don’t know what this looks like for the future for tourism from the United States, but I do know that our trip would have looked quite a bit different if these policies had already been in place when we traveled last week.
I have had such a difficult time deciding the direction of this post. I want to tell you how I perceive these current changes will effect current travel to Cuba for everyday tourists. I want to tell you how thankful I am to live here in the United States with the availability of products and services we have (like toilet paper!) and can provide in a private market. You need to know about the beautiful Cuban people and delicious Cuban food. Most of all, I want to tell you about the lesson I learned from allowing crazy ladies braid my hair in the market without my consent. All of these rabbit trails, demand their own space and time. Given the freshness of the information that came from the White House yesterday, I will start with explaining how I understand the current system to work and how the proposed changes will effect the type of trip that I took.
I should have begun with a disclaimer. I knew almost nothing about Cuba before we booked our anniversary cruise. We had a narrow travel window, lined up all of the possible options, and chose the Royal Caribbean cruise to Key West and Havana. It was a new destination for us. Very few U.S. citizens have traveled to Cuba. We like learning about new places and cultures. It fit our time-frame for travel. There was one balcony cabin still available. I booked it first and asked questions later.
As I was researching tours that we could take that were not through Royal Caribbean, I discovered a FaceBook group specifically for Royal Caribbean travelers to Cuba. It provided a wealth of information to me and gave me a place to ask questions of those who had recently traveled the same route. This was where I first learned about visas to Cuba.
There were only 12 ways that a non-Cuban U.S. Citizen could legally travel to Cuba. We had to fill out a visa form and pay $75 for the visa before we were allowed to disembark in Havana. There was an informational session on the boat instructing us how to fill out our forms and telling us about how to meet the governmental requirements for travel to Cuba.
There were two boxes on the form that applied to the cruise passengers. We were to choose one of the two boxes on the visa. The first was a full-day educational tour in Cuba. This option was met only if you booked a minimum 6-hour tour through the cruise line. Half-day and evening excursions through the cruise line did not meet this requirement.
The second was a “person-to-person” option that allowed us to book excursions meeting the educational travel requirement outside of the cruise companies. This option gives U.S. travelers the freedom to satisfy the full-day history and cultural lesson on our own. This visa option, as I understand it from the above CNN article, will no longer be allowed with the amended policy.
We had an evening excursion booked through Royal Caribbean to see a show at the Cuban National Hotel, but this shorter excursion did not meet the requirements for checking box one. We also had a private excursion booked online through recommendations from the FaceBook group and Trip Advisor. This seven-hour excursion satisfied the “person-to-person” requirements of our visas. So, we checked the second box on the visa form.
The tour company that we used was a privately-owned company. In Cuba, many of the tour guides and drivers–including those used by the cruise ships–are employed by the Cuban government. Privately-owned companies pay HUGE licensing fees to the Cuban government in order to stay in business. However, this seemed to be the only way that normal Cuban citizens felt that they have any chance of getting ahead. We were told that the Cuban government was no longer issuing new private licenses to its citizens because so many people left government jobs in search of higher-paying, private ones. Even careers that are considered prestigious in the U.S. like doctors and college professors make next-to-nothing in Cuba.
If U.S. citizens are no longer allowed to book tours outside of the cruise lines, privately-owned companies such as the one we used will surely suffer. These knowledgable private guides provide a valuable window into the lives of Cubans. They teach tourists about Cuban history and architecture, but also provide a foundational link in building essential relationships from “person-to-person”.
I am thankful that we were able to travel to Cuba when we did. I appreciate the information that we gained on the history, culture, customs, and everyday life from our knowledgable host. We wanted to experience Cuba before the borders opened up completely–before it lost it’s old-world vibe. Given the news yesterday, however, it seems that may still be a long-time coming. I will keep my eye on this situation in the news. Once you have experienced a place, you can no longer be ambivalent towards it. I care about the outcome of this situation. Meanwhile, I will pray for better opportunities for the Cuban people and a more peaceful relationship between our governments.