Earlier this year, President Obama traveled to Cuba, the first time a U.S. president has done so since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. It’s no mystery that for the past 55 years the two countries haven’t been the best of friends. Despite Cuba’s unbelievably close proximity (Key West sits a mere 100 miles from Havana), American tourists have acquainted themselves far more intimately with countries considerably further away, which feels like a tragedy considering Cuba’s rich culture. Over the past few years though, restrictions have loosened allowing for greater opportunities to better understand the this Caribbean neighbor.
With the recent visit, the President has lifted many sanctions on Cuba opening the lines of communication and trade. What it means for the future is anyone’s guess, but most believe that legal Cuban tourism lies just around the corner. With all this talk of improved relations, it might come as a surprise that you can travel to Cuba right now if you wanted to. If you’re looking for something truly new, plan a trip to the mysterious Caribbean isle and get a preview of what’s to come. Before you pack your bags, however, know that a Cuban visit comes with some restrictions.
Since 2014, Americans have been permitted to visit the country, but only if the reason falls under one of twelve categories. According to http://havana.usembassy.gov/index.html – which has a host of other important Cuban travel information – the categories are as follows:
- Educational activities in Cuba for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
- Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
- Religious activities in Cuba
- Humanitarian projects in Cuba
- Journalistic activities in Cuba
- Family visits to close relatives in Cuba
- Activities in Cuba by private foundations, research, or educational institutes
- Any type of support for the Cuban people
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
- Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
- Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
Technically, tourism is outlawed. Those rules, however, are somewhat lax as the only means of enforcement is the honor system. Most that travel to Cuba choose to categorize themselves under the educational article though the education aspect is somewhat subjective and a person to person culture exchange applies broadly. Speaking to shop keepers where you purchase goods to visiting community centers and historical sites and chats with random strangers on the street pretty much satisfies the requirement. While fulfilling the purpose of your visit can be rather lenient, expect a few things that you will want to strictly adhere to.
When they say tourism is illegal, there are a few absolute no-no’s such as lounging on any of their beautiful beaches. Even big resorts can come across as iffy. A full, planned schedule is greatly advised if not required. Many travelers go through a Cuban travel agency who are more than happy to fill your day up with meaningful sightseeing activities. Many who frequent the country also suggest staying at a guest house or (called locally) a “casa particular.” They are essentially Cuban family homes not unlike a bed and breakfast or Airbnb and cheaper than hotels. It’s also a great way to connect with the Cuban people on your educational sabbatical.
Traveling to the country will also get easier. An aviation agreement was recently signed allowing up to 110 daily flights to Cuba via commercial airlines when you previously needed a chartered flight. And, according to CNN, American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit Airlines, and Delta have all announced their intentions to host flights.
A few last things to note: Cuba does have internet, but it is extremely limited. You may bring back up to $400 in souvenirs—that includes $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco. That means those legendary Cuban cigars are no longer forbidden. Have at it. Cuban artwork and informational materials are exempt from this limit.
Monetarily, Cuba uses two currencies, the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso (CUP). You will need the CUC which has a 1:1 exchange rate with the Dollar, but know that there is a 10 % tax on currency exchange and retailers usually charge a 3% service fee. US credit and debit cards will become available, but as of this blog post that system isn’t implemented yet.
Lastly, as impressed upon you earlier, make sure you plan out your whole trip. Cuban immigration will ‘screen’ you. Expect simple, direct questions including the address of where you are staying. Visit http://havana.airportcuba.net/customs.html for a preview of what to expect.
Cuba is a gorgeous country with plenty of history and tourist potential. This is truly a historic moment and one that no one should let pass by. Go ahead early adopter, get a head start and familiarize yourself with the country before it becomes popular.