This summer, it will be a full year since the first commercial flights from the United States landed in Cuba after the American trade embargo on the island nation banned travel in 1959.
After so many decades of not being able to visit Cuba legally, Americans are pretty excited to check out this somewhat isolated nation trapped in time.
In the early 1900s, Cuba was a playground for Americans, famous for rum, tropical weather, nightlife and gambling. In 1959, Fidel Castro’s guerilla army took control of Havana and nationalized American businesses, declaring Cuba a communist country. U.S. sanctions on Cuba made travel there illegal for Americans. There were no commercial flights into the country, although some Americans visited illegally by transferring through other countries.
“Travelers to Cuba are able to witness and learn about the multiple changes of this emerging new Cuba. Our People-to-People programs delve deep into Cuba’s history and culture, and our guests meet directly with Cubans, from entrepreneurs, college students and historians to musicians and artists,” Karen A. Ledwin, General Manager, Smithsonian Journeys, told GrindTV. Her group has been offering trips since 2012, adhering to trade guidelines established by the U.S. government.
The socialist structure, economic situation and lack of U.S. investment kept Cuba a fascinating relic of the Western world. Its vintage automobiles and colonial architecture, maintained out of pure necessity, fascinate Americans (especially when mint and syrup are added to the rum). Last August, the U.S. government made special travel permits possible.
“The increased number of Americans we see on the ground, in the streets, in restaurants and so forth, all around Cuba, was easily tenfold what it had been six months earlier,” Trish Sare, founder and owner of the tour operation group BikeHike, told GrindTV.
The Brookings Institution research group released a study late last year stating that the number of foreign visitors to Cuba could rise from 3.5 million in 2015 to over 10 million in 2030, not including a potential additional 5 million in cruise passengers.
“No other economic sector in Cuba is as ready to generate such large returns. No other sector can unlock future economic expansion and generate the foreign exchange necessary to release Cuba from the hard-currency tourniquet that has throttled growth,” states the study, authored by Kimberly Green.
“Eventually, agriculture and industry could take off, but not before government economic policies are thoroughly overhauled.”
There have always been pockets of Cubans with passion for outdoor pursuits, despite the financial obstacles. And adventure-minded Americans were traveling to Cuba even before it opened up to them oficially. Several surf magazines had travel stories over the decades; there’s a growing surf scene in Havana and exploration of Cuba may hold hidden treasures along its 3,500 miles of coast.
Fishing has always been a draw to Cuba, going back to ol’ Ernie Hemmingway. Today there are offshore, inshore and even freshwater fishing options. The resorts have long offered snorkeling and scuba as well.
Kiteboarding and windsurfing have gained even more traction in Cuba. Europeans and Canadians tend to gravitate toward these sports and have always been allowed to travel to Cuba legally. You’ll find almost 10 kite- and sailboard outfitters, several of which are on the outskirts of Havana.
For the two-wheelers, there’s road biking and mountain biking. Last December, American racers were permitted to compete in the Titan Tropic Cuba, a 280-mile mountain bike marathon that starts in Havana, goes through lush jungles and ends at the beach of Cayo Jutias.
“We’ve seen an increased level of interest in cycling-specific tours. Visitors recognize that this is an excellent way to see the country and get off the mainstream tourism track, particularly in the countryside. You’ll ride past famers commuting in oxcarts, tractors and equipment from the ’50s tending the fields, and often have a chance to talk to these friendly locals,” says Sare.
Most Americans have had little problem getting a permit, but that has had an effect already.
“Since the increase began, prices in Cuba have been skyrocketing,” Sare adds. “Cuba does not yet have the infrastructure to deal with the numbers, and economic progress is slow. So, for now, prices are increasing as a matter of limited supply with so much demand, generally originating at the state level with heavy tax increases.
“Despite being a country facing extreme lack, it is not all a cheap destination.”
Read more about Cuba on GrindTV