The New Cuba: From The Rolling Stones To Chanel
with Brett Christie

Just one example of the beautiful cars and buildings in Old Havana.

Musicians serenading passersby on the streets of Old Havana.

Every street corner in Old Havana was so beautiful I couldn't contain my joy!

The 1st American cruise ship in decades to dock in Havana. A very emotional return for many Cuban-Americans aboard Carnival's fathom and their friends and relatives waiting for them on shore

The Rum Museum in Havana where we ran into the Kardashian clan filming an episode of their show.

Fellow Canadian Journalist Ilona Kauremszky, Canadian Ambassador to Cuba Yves Gagnon and myself at the honourary Canadian luncheon at Restaurant 1830.  

What do the Rolling Stones, Chanel and the Kardashians all have in common?

These trend-setters all know what is going to be cool before most of us do and right now that’s visiting the city of Havana, the capital of Cuba.

It seems there is more to Cuba than the glorious beaches and feet-up resort relaxation in Varadero. Who knew? Apparently not many of us. Of the 1.3 million Canadian visitors to Cuba last year, only 1% visited Havana.

I had the pleasure of staying in Havana at this year’s FITCuba event and this iconic city is well worth the visit. It was the 36th annual FITCuba and the biggest yet with 174 journalists from 53 countries in attendance.

Canada was the guest of honour this year as a tribute to 70 years of unwavering diplomatic relations and the fact that we’ve contributed the most arrivals of any country, every year, since 1998. During the conference both Cuban and Canadian Ministers of Tourism (Manuel Marrero Cruz and Bardish Chagger respectively) spoke of the importance and the warmth of the relationship between the 2 countries and the optimistic outlook for continued growth.

Much of the buzz at the conference was around whether the loosened ties with the U.S. mean that Americans are coming in droves, taking up our lounge chairs and drinking our beer. The majority of Americans are still only visiting Havana, due to their need to fulfill cultural/educational travel requirements (they’re still not allowed to visit as tourists) so we were assured that the beaches still belong to Canada.

Even so, with Cuba’s added popularity, Cruz admitted that they had some issues keeping up with demand late last year with the influx of visitors. However they are responding quickly and have 126 hotel investment projects underway throughout the country along with many other infrastructure improvements including expansions and/or upgrades to airports, roads and municipal utilities.

In Havana specifically there are 3 new hotels under construction with 27 more in the queue – a combination of new builds and restoration of stunning historic buildings. The Cubans are determined to keep their high visitor satisfaction rates so they are also looking to implement country-wide benchmarks for service industry standards.

On more than one occasion over the course of the week, Cruz mentioned that they have heard us loud and clear: We love you Cuba, but we do not love your food. Conference attendees were reassured again and again that they are taking the necessary steps to improve the country’s culinary offerings.

What I can say is that the authentic Cuban food I ate in the Paladors (restaurants in private homes) in Havana was delicious and I heard the same from a number of colleagues. And, of course, what Cuba does offer in spades are beautiful surroundings, whether it be beaches and lush landscapes or gorgeous colonial architecture, the amazingly warm and welcoming people, the fascinating history and culture, the high level of safety, and of course, the inspired music scene. You see how I didn’t even have to mention rum and cigars there?

The most striking tourism-related revelation I had while there was that we Canadians have been travelling to Cuba for years and years and only a teeny tiny minority of us have ever actually experienced the complex beauty that is, as our guides would say “The Real Cuba”. There are certain parts of the Cuban culture that our guides were very proud to speak of; the emphasis on education for all, the incredible health care, the close-knit family units and of course, the joy of baseball. 

They also spoke lovingly about the diverse landscapes from caves to canopied valleys, mountains to tobacco farms, and underground rivers to white sand beaches. The beauty of the old colonial architecture in their city centres is not lost on them either and their genuine desire to have us stay and see it all was truly touching.

While the Cuban people have lots to be proud of, part of the real experience is hearing from them first-hand of some of the challenges they face living in a socialist nation. The Secretary General of the World Tourism Organization (WTO), Taleb Rifai said “We need to be very responsible to our people and our planet. Guests can be opportunities or disasters.” He spoke of how travelling gives us the opportunity to make a contribution to the well being of the people and places we visit. 

Cuba is one of those places where you end up feeling so much for the people and you want to leave feeling like you’ve made some kind of positive impact on their lives.

We were assured that locals also benefit from tourism revenue, it doesn’t just go back into tourism-specific infrastructure and programs. Of the USD 2.8 billion profit from tourism in 2015, some goes towards the restoration of buildings including personal residences and schools.

So back to my revelation – now that Americans can travel to Cuba under the guise of culture and education, they are getting more of ‘The Real Cuba’ than most of us have ever had even after multiple visits, since they can’t just head straight for the beach.

Rather than sending your clients directly to a resort in Varadero, consider sending them on a tour with Tucan Travel to the rolling landscapes and tobacco farms of the Vinales area. Or have them go to Trinidad to experience the best of both the beach and the cultural city-centre. Or to Havana to experience the mesmerizing beauty of walking through the incredible streets both old and new(er). 

There are so many wonderful destination options in Cuba and we have been a little slow on the up-take. I think with the changing world of tourism both our first-time visiting millenials and our return-visiting baby boomers will be more inclined to want to experience the culture first-hand. So now is the time to venture off the resort before our American friends start getting to know our Cuban friends better than us!

The beautiful lookout over the Vinales Valley where we  
stopped for a canopy zip line adventure.

We set sail on a catamaran from our hotel Melia Marina Varadero to this beach,
Cayo Blanco 
for lunch and a dip in the ocean. 

View of the pool and ocean from my balcony at the 
Melia Havana.

The lobby bar at the Sevilla Hotel. Transat treated the Canadians to a
cocktail party in the hotel's panoramic 
roof garden restaurant. 

Me on the beach at the Iberostar Varadero Hotel. 

Because a bride in a  pink convertible driving through 
must be photographed. 

Kim Kardashian & Kanye West at the Rum Museum. 

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