People think it's suddenly easy for Americans to visit Cuba -- but they're totally wrong

Tourists, Chevrolet, Car, Convertible, CubaWikimedia Commons via Jorge RoyanTourists in a 1951 Chevrolet Convertible

After President Obama announced eased travel restrictions to Cuba late last year, Americans itching to check out the closed-off Caribbean country rejoiced.

Companies, too, have been eager to jump in on Cuban tourism: Airbnb has unveiled more than 1,000 listings on the island, Cheapair.com has started selling direct flights to Cuba, and big American chain hotels are already eyeing properties on the island.

But the truth is that it’s still very difficult for Americans to visit Cuba legally.

Danilo Bonilla, the program director for Cuba and North America for travel company Mountain Travel Sobek, emphasised that despite the eased restrictions, there are still major obstacles for Americans who want to travel to Cuba.

“People think the announcement on December 17th changed things, but the reality is that communication is more open, but very few things have actually changed,” Bonilla said.

Americans are not allowed to simply vacation in Cuba. The only way to legally visit is to fall under one of 12 tourist licenses, including family visits, religious activities, professional purposes, and educational reasons, to name a few. That means that you can’t go to Cuba to just lay on the beach.

Perhaps the biggest change for Americans who can legally visit the island is that they will now be able to spend some money there. Newly announced measures would allow visitors to be able to purchase “$US400 of general goods and up to $US100 of alcohol and tobacco products that can include cigars” while in Cuba. Previously, Americans were prohibited from spending any money there. However, while Americans are now allowed to pay for their expenses with credit or debit cards, very few establishments actually accept credit cards.

Cuba internetAP Photo/Desmond BoylanPeople use a free Wi-Fi network at a center run by famed artist Kcho, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

There are other obstacles, too.

Internet access on the island is very limited, making it difficult to plan a trip there and book hotel, restaurant, or tour reservations. And while you can book a direct flight to Cuba from the US now, flights are limited (as they’re all charter planes), and often expensive. Public transportation within Cuba is limited and unreliable. And the majority of the hotels are large, government-owned properties that are not well-maintained, yet are overbooked and overpriced.

“The reality for American travellers is that Cuba is not an easy place to visit,” Bonilla said. “Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate Americans, the way Americans like to travel.”

However, all of this hasn’t stopped the influx of Americans who are itching to visit the country.

Manny Kopstein, the founder and CEO of
Cuba Travel Adventures Group, has been travelling to Cuba for over 10 years, but said that recent trips have been more difficult to coordinate as hotels, restaurants, and flights are all increasingly full.

“The infrastructure in Cuba, particularly in Havana, is incapable today of handling the tremendous demand,” Kopstein said. “As demand increases, the infrastructure will be bursting at the seams and a lot of people will be disappointed.”

Street scene with cuban people and colourful old buildings in HavanaKamira/ShutterstockA street scene in Havana.

Both Kopstein and Bonilla said that the best way for Americans to visit Cuba is with a legitimate tour company that has been operating in Cuba for a long time.

“It’s not what you know, but who you know in Cuba,” Kopstein said. “The larger tour companies will charge you a lot of money, but they have the connections to the big hotels and restaurants that will get you in the door.”

Bonilla also said that tour companies “have the contacts and can make it easier to visit.”

All of that said, Bonilla emphasised that Americans who really want to visit Cuba shouldn’t wait.

“Don’t wait too long because once it really opens up, Cuba could be very different,” Bonilla said.

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