Paradise Not Lost

Despite influx of US visitors, the tourist experience in Cuba will remain the same.

Two cars, old and new about to pass eachother on Havana’s famous Malecón. Image via Sara Goldberg.

Across a multitude of travel columns and internet blogs, most features on Cuba share a common disclaimer: go now before it’s too late. It is as if the booming tourism industry, aided by a lifting of flight restrictions from the United States, will inevitably transform the island into the Spring-broken beaches of Florida and Mexico, littered with Red Bulls and broken glass.

This phenomenon is not unique to Cuba. Travel culture among the upper classes of North America and Europe has turned vacationing into a game of hide-and-seek. In-flight magazines are peppered with titles such as “Get to Lombok before it becomes the next Bali,” or “Skip Thailand, go to Myanmar.” The New York Times releases a list of 52 places to travel every year, highlighting non-traditional destinations like Bogota and Botswana over the more trafficked Paris, Honolulu, and Bangkok. Such publications portray sightseeing like a Labor Day sale, good while supples last.

It makes sense. Places with more foreign visitors adapt to cater to them. As a result, cities on opposite sides of the globe can provide a remarkably similar experience. Travel journalists operate on the assumption that their audience wants something distinct, but in practice, familiarity sells.

For Americans, Cuba is a special case. Despite the paltry 90 miles separating the two countries, the US-enforced trade embargo has deterred millions of would-be travelers. At the same time the embargo has contributed to the colorful image of Cuba depicted in magazines and documentaries. Brightly painted 1950s era cars mosey down narrow streets where older men sing and play guitar, their gap toothed smiles cracking olive skin.

Musicians play for tourists in Old Havana.

A trip to Old Havana will surely reinforce these stereotypes. Taxi drivers maneuver automobiles from the 50s and 40s known as Maquinas, dragged into the next millennium by scrap metal and smuggled parts. On every other corner, trios of street musicians dressed in Panama hats charm visitors with well-known Cuban hits. Odds are they’re singing Chan Chan, a song made popular in America by the film Buena Vista Social Club.

What many think of as the authentic Cuba — untouched by McDonalds and the tacky fingers of the free market — is one that’s built on catering to tourists. Clunky Chevy sedans are Frankensteined into pink and baby-blue convertibles because it sells, and every extra dollar earned is worth more than the median daily salary.

A couple of tricked-out taxis wait for tourist in front of Cuba’s capitol building.

If and when the embargo is lifted, it’s unlikely that tourism in Old Havana will change. The street musicians will play Chan Chan, and Maquinas will putter long after new American and Japanese cars roll in.

It’s the Cubans, not the tourists, who will experience drastic change. For many, it will mean new businesses, more buying power and access to foreign goods. Others will worry about post-Castro politicians scraping a system that has housed and fed millions of people. Cuba is destined to change, but if you’re worried about the island becoming the next Cancún, sleep easy; Señor Frog is still far away.


This is the first post of a series I hope to publish while studying in Cuba for the semester. Due to limited internet please direct any comments or questions to Images via Sara Goldberg, and Rani Craft Robinson of the travel channel.