The first nonstop flight from the U.S. West Coast to Cuba took off from Los Angeles International Airport Terminal 6 last week and TravelSkills was onboard.
We were part of a delegation of about 50 business, government and civic leaders from the West Coast invited by Alaska Airlines for a two-day relationship-building and fact-finding mission to Havana.
While it was a very quick trip, I picked up tons of interesting insight and info about the current situation and outlook for American travelers in Cuba. And since I’m a newbie to regular flying on Alaska Airlines, I learned a lot about it, too.
So let’s dive in.
In this post I’ll take a look at what’s happening in Cuba— we’ll follow up with a post on flying Alaska Airlines to get there.
My primary take-away: Whether or not you’ll like Cuba now depends on the type of traveler you are. It’s a great place for the adventurous or curious traveler with an open mind, lots of patience and ability to deal with the heat, humidity and grit of a poor, developing country. Right now, it’s not a place for a traveler who expects world-class creature comforts, high quality food and drink, relaxation and leisure. Interested? Then see: How much does it cost to fly to Havana? Not much! More advice: If you can afford to hire a guide, hire one. Or go as part of a group. Cuba’s a tough place to see on your own for the first time. (The company Alaska Air engaged to guide our group was Distant Horizons.)
Politics: On our first morning in Havana, we attended a lecture by University of Havana Professor Jorge Mario Sanchez. He’s is a professor of Economics and International Relations and oversees the University’s student exchange program with Harvard University. President-elect Trump’s views on Cuba and what he may or may not do is clearly the top concern on the island these days. Why? Because the recent warming of relations between the U.S and Cuba, and the relaxation of rules for travelers are not at all permanent. The increased engagement we’ve experienced lately is the result of an executive order by President Obama, which could easily be reversed with the stroke of a pen by the incoming president.
Sanchez emphasized that with the trade embargo still in place, the U.S. and Cuba are still considered enemies under the current legal framework. The only way our relationship with Cuba can be truly normalized is to rescind trade embargo (The “Cuban Assets Control Regulations” set in 1963)– something only Congress can do. Cubans hoping for sustained change were dealt a blow recently when Trump appointed Mauricio Claver-Carone, a harsh critic of Obama’s efforts to normalize relations, and director of a pro-embargo group, to his transition team.
Could we be living in a rare window of opportunity to visit Cuba before the door is slammed shut again? Maybe! Time will tell…
Business: With Marriott, Starwood, Airbnb, Alaska Airlines and nearly every U.S. carrier already operating in Cuba, a blanket reversal is probably unlikely. But it’s still a big unknown. Also, recent changes in property ownership are spawning a new entrepreneurial class in Cuba. For example, Cubans can now own those classic cars, and run them like small businesses. You can negotiate with drivers for a ride across town or a tour (starting at about $25). Our group visited a newly privatized garage where these cars are restored and maintained. Sanchez says that privately owned restaurants are all the rage now, with over 500 new ones opening in the last year! Whatever happens with Trump, Sanchez says that Cubans will “improvise, adapt and survive”– something they’ve been doing for over 50 years.
Hotels: Alaska Air put up our group at the Iberostar Parque Central hotel. It’s considered a 5-star hotel in Cuba, but that’s by Cuban standards. Most folks in our group were shocked to learn that the daily rate at this hotel ran about $550. While the staff could not have been nicer and the facilities any cleaner, the hard product was not up to world-class, 5-star standards– beds were low and lumpy, furniture dated and nicked, wi-fi was slow and spotty, elevators overtaxed (hotel was full or Americans and Europeans). How can they get away with a rate like that? Well, it’s supply and demand. There are a LOT of people who want to travel to Cuba right now and most want the security and familiarity of a big hotel (vs an Airbnb or casa particular) for their first visit, and are willing to pay for it. When demand outstrips supply, you get inflation. Good old capitalism at work, right?
Construction: As you may recall, I was on the first cruise ship allowed to sail from the US to Cuba last May. In the short period of time since then, I noticed that there is a LOT more construction and rehabilitation of Havana’s crumbling, yet still beautiful, architecture. There’s a big scaffolding on the Capitol building, which is undergoing a complete renovation by a German firm. Next door is the recently redone, now glittering and well-lit baroque National Opera. Next to that is the soon-to-be-Starwood-managed Inglaterra hotel- a grand dame in need of an update (according to guests I spoke with), but with a lively scene nightly on its roof bar. Across the street from the Iberostar, a striking, sugar-white new Kempinski Havana hotel (housed in the elegant Manzana de Gomez building) is in the final stages of a major redo, and should open this year. A brand-new-from-the-ground-up 10-story glass and steel hotel is rising across the street for the Havana’s famous water-front malecon. A new Marriott hotel will soon be built inside the gorgeous facade of a grand old building in Old Havana.
Oil and Gas: Something I did not know is that Cuba has vast and mostly unexplored oil and gas fields along its Gulf of Mexico coastline and could eventually be one of Latin America’s top exporters of fossil fuels in coming years. Havana will even host an Oil & Gas Summit next month. While that could do great things for the Cuban economy, Sanchez said that there is worry about the environmental impact of off-shore drilling not just on Cuba, but on the entire Atlantic ocean since the Gulf Stream flows through the area and into the North Atlantic. With an oil and gas executive poised to be at the helm of the U.S. State Department, who knows what could happen in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Fishing: In a seaside city like Havana, you’d expect to see a big fishing fleet and lots of seafood on the menu. You’d also expect to see a big trade in charter fishing boats for visitors. But when you peer north out at the dark blue waters off Havana’s malecon, that’s all you see… water. No boats. Why? Well, as our guide said, “We don’t have many fishermen in Cuba because they fish too far” referring to the steady stream of Cubans escaping to the U.S. by boat or raft. But now that President Obama has ended the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allows Cubans (only) arriving on U.S. shores automatic permanent residency status (versus arrest and deportation), there is less incentive for Cubans to run away. Maybe fishing could once again become a viable occupation in Cuba.
So there you have it! Next up will by my trip report on the Alaska Airlines flight between Los Angeles and Havana, including a look at the LAX gate side festivities (including Cuban pastries and strong coffee), the fiesta atmosphere onboard the plane, our reception in the business class lounge (Salon V.I.P) at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and more!
Disclosure: Alaska Airlines covered the cost of Chris’s trip to Havana
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