Travel Editor: Off-Limits Cuba a Diamond in the Rough

Sarah Mullin
for National Geographic News
October 22, 2002

In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war after the Kennedy administration discovered that the Soviet Union was constructing missiles in Cuba. As a result the U.S. government banned U.S. tourist travel to Cuba, and that embargo remains today. On the 40th anniversary of the crisis, Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows recalls his visit to the tiny island nation, predicts what could happen if the embargo were lifted, and more.

What has this embargo done to Cuba's tourism industry?

Cuba's tourism trade would be more robust if Americans could get there more easily. Since most Americans can't go to the country legally, the Canadians have been one of the major developers of Cuba's tourism industry; there are 30,000 hotel rooms in Cuba now, and much of those have been built with foreign money. American companies are missing out by not being able to help develop Cuba's tourism industry.

So why did the government make it illegal for U.S. travelers to go to Cuba?

The embargo was a political move; the U.S. government was trying to ostracize Cuba and dampen commerce. Journalists, academics, or people with family in Cuba can get a visa to go there. Last year only 6,000 visas were granted, yet 200,000 Americans went to Cuba. So, people are figuring out how to get there. Many fly from Toronto. There are also several new mom and pop operations that are facilitating travel to Cuba, sort of like the Underground Railroad. And last August the Havana Flying Club and Bahamasair launched new service to Havana via Nassau from Miami, Orlando, and Fort Lauderdale from $198 round-trip.

Did you feel safe in Cuba?

My wife and I were driving in the old city at 1 a.m.; the street lighting was poor, and the conditions were pretty squalid. I stopped and asked for directions, and the guy couldn't have been more helpful. He got into the car and led us to this little restaurant we were looking for. Another time we met a painter on the street. She took us to her studio, which turned out to be a tiny room in a three-room apartment in Havana. Her parents were there and they served us coffee and cake. They were delightful, very friendly. I never felt a moment of danger.

Has this embargo glorified our image of Cuba?

For many Americans, Cuba is fascinating because it's forbidden. That's why, in a recent CNN poll, 86 percent of the respondents said they wanted this embargo lifted so they could go to Cuba directly. Cuba is an example of arrested development. And for Americans lives as much in the mind's eye as it does in actuality. We remember the Mafia days with the glamorous casinos, but times have changed. In Havana, for instance, the general level of existence is pretty basic, with a lot of poverty.

To some, vacationing in a place with so much poverty may sound daunting. Why go there?

It depends on what you like. I find Cuba's culture fascinating. You can visit the arid markets, hang out in small cafes and soak up local color, and check out the mind-boggling music scene at night. I loved it. But Cuba is a Third World country, and the tourism infrastructure is not highly developed. The best hotel is Hotel Nacional in Havana. It has Old World charm, though it's pretty run down. Out in the country are fabulous beaches that aren't overdeveloped. So if you are willing to rough it a bit and not go for five-star style, it's great. Cuba is real. It's not faux paradise. What you see is what you get.

If the embargo were lifted, could Cuba become another Hawaii or Mayan Riviera?

Continued on Next Page >>


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