I just returned from my third journey to Cuba. It was great to renew old friendships from previous trips there, as well as to make new friends both Cuban and among the group of photographers from the United States with whom I traveled. While the impressions of the trip are fresh in my mind, I am reflecting with a mixture of emotions on some of the changes that I have seen on the island since I first visited there in 2013. I feel selfishly sad because “my” Cuba, the Cuba that I came to know and love, is becoming more crowded, and therefore less appealing to me. I am fearful to think how Cuba might change if it become a bonafide tourist mecca. But I am also hopeful that if managed well, tourism can improve the economic conditions and personal liberties of the Cuban people.
Things are changing in Cuba. Whether for better or worse only time will tell. During my first trip there, which happened to be the week preceding Easter, there were a few tourists, mostly Canadians escaping the northern winter. Then a day or two before Good Friday, Habana Vieja (the old, original part of the city) was suddenly filled with Europeans, who, I was told, liked to travel there over the Easter holiday. Back then it was easy to escape the crowds by hopping the ferry across the bay to Casa Blanca or Regla, or by simply walking to the Centro Habana neighborhood where ordinary Cubans live and tourists seldom venture.
But this year the touristy areas were crowded every day with people speaking German, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish-Spanish, British- and Canadian-English, and likely other languages that I did not recognize. It was as if the rest of the world had realized that an army of US tourists were going to invade the island as a result of the eased travel restrictions by the US government, and that it behooved them to visit the place before the “Americans” got there in sufficient force to turn it into Disneyland South. Probably not faulty logic at all.
My friend Anay, who works for the state-run tourist agency Paradiso, told me that visitors to the island increased from 100,000 to 200,000 this year since the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba was announced in December 2014, and is expected to double again to 400,000 next year. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are around 65,000 hotel rooms in the entire country right now, so rooms are becoming difficult to book, and construction of new hotels is proceeding at el pace del caracol (a snail's pace.) On past trips we stayed at the Hotel Los Frailes, a small hotel in Habana Vieja. This year some of our previously-reserved rooms were taken from us and given to other groups, so several of us stayed in casas particulares, rooms in privately-owned houses. While I love the experience of living with Cubans in this way, it made logistics more challenging for group leader Steve Anchell.
While always a busy place, the Malecon is now choked with tour buses, both the tinted-windowed and air-conditioned kind designed to insulate tourists from the noise, dirt, and heat that is Havana, as well as those open top, double-decker vehicles sure to sunburn any fair-skinned visitor. The owners of classic Chevrolet, Ford, and yes, even Rambler taxis particulares have no trouble finding tourists armed with Go Pro cameras and selfie sticks to drive to the Hotel Nacional for mojitos on the lawn. I needed a taxi to take me to a building several miles away that I wanted to photograph. The first driver wanted 10 CUC (approximately $10 USD) for a drive that would have cost half as much last year and would not budge; the second grudgingly accepted a lower fare, suggesting to me that the taxistas are taking advantage of uninformed tourists. The ubiquitous panhandling common in underdeveloped countries seems to have gotten more prevalent and aggressive, and other forms of seedier solicitation...well, I will simply say that I felt like the girl in Jimmy Buffett's song, Fins.
I have often said that if you want great food and tolerable people, go to France; if you want great people and tolerable food, go to Cuba. Being an island, seafood is plentiful and some of it is good, even excellent. I had a great fish lunch at a restaurant in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, some really good Shrimp Criolla in Santiago de Cuba, and a truly wonderful meal at an organic farm/restaurant in Viñales. But most of the food is just okay, and the multitudes of tourists are causing waiters to say with increasing frequency, “we are out of that,” when attempting to order from paladar menus. Fortunately for me, I have learned to love the ham sandwiches and guava juice or café cubano that can be purchased from the streetside windows of residences or shops, so I did not have to worry about filling my belly. And, of course, any dearth of good food is more than compensated for by an abundant supply of the planet's finest rum.
No amount of rum, however, can ease the havoc that exponentially-increasing tourism is wreaking upon the country's air transportation system. Partway through the trip we flew from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. After arriving at Jose Marti airport 3 hours ahead of our scheduled morning departure time as required, we learned the flight was delayed for several hours. Apparently only one of the several Cubana Airlines planes that make daily runs between the two cities was airworthy that day, and it was racing up and down the length of the country in a futile attempt to stay on schedule. Instead of a mid afternoon arrival as planned, we got to our destination very late at night. A repeat performance ensued when it was time to leave Cuba and return to the United States, with the result that nearly everyone in the group who had a connecting flight home spent the night in Miami. It seems that the Cuban government either has not planned for or is unwilling or unable to pay for the additional workers that are required to move thousands more people around their island. As unofficial translator for the group, I was asked by Steve to tell the woman staffing the departure gate whom we had been asking for updates all day that we understood that they were overworked and that we appreciated their efforts. I did my best to convey the message in Spanish, then turned to Steve and said in English, “I hope I said that right.” The woman looked up from her work and said, in English, “you said it perfectly.” Así que va...
It occurs to me that three phrases that I least like to hear all have the word cruise in them...Tom Cruise, Cruise ship, and Ted Cruz. Okay, I know that Cruz means cross, but it sounds the same. I would rather have dental surgery than ride on a cruise ship; at least you get anesthetized at the dentist. And cruise ships returning to Havana harbor? Yikes! Yet that is just what is happening. We heard that Carnival has applied for permission to call at the Port of Havana in early 2016. In preparation for the arrival of these weapons of mass tourism, some of the pre-revolution steam ship docks have been razed and replaced with floating human highways designed to efficiently disgorge thousands of tourists onto the streets of Havana. And, as we were leaving Havana on our last day in the country, this gargantuan, ugly cruiser was docked further down the harbor.
People ask me what I like most about Cuba; what draws me back to the island. I usually begin by listing the things that make me smile: the Spanish Colonial and Art Deco architecture, the rum, the classic American cars, the ruins, the tropical air, the rum, even immigration and customs at Jose Marti airport. But all of that is simply icing on the cake. What I really love about Cuba are Cubans. I believe that Cubans are the most gracious, open, warmest, friendliest and happiest people on this planet, in spite of the hardships that they have endured over the past 500 years of Spanish, US, and communist governance.
I hope that all of these changes bring a better life to the Cuban people. I hope that the increased tourism and business coming to the island will make all Cubans more prosperous. I hope that the greater exposure to free enterprise that is coming to the island will eventually cause Cubans to want a more democratic form of government for themselves. But most of all I hope that these changes do not change the essential spirit of the Cuban people.