Milgaro, who works as a server at Casa Larabi, stands in front of a table set with an assortment of foods and drinks.
Milgaro, who works as a server at Casa Larabi, stands in front of a table set with an assortment of foods and drinks. Credit: Larabi/Casa Larabi

For 60 years, Cuba has held off American hostility. Now it appears to have defeated COVID and is ready to open its doors again to visitors. As recently as September 13, this hardly seemed possible. At the time, the island of 11 million residents reported 8,342 new cases of COVID, with similar numbers every day that week. Now the picture has flipped. Every day, numbers are going down, with just 676 new cases reported on October 31, for example.

So what’s new? Cuba and Cubans have a long history of ingenuity, defying the odds and confounding the experts, and they may have done it again. Thanks to a rapid rollout beginning last summer of the remarkably effective vaccines Cuba has developed on its own — unique among all developing countries — Cuba appears to have COVID under control and is ready to welcome visitors again.

“Those of us who made a living from tourism have suffered in this time of pandemic,” a musician friend in Trinidad, Cuba, tells me. Without work and depending on government subsidies meant going without most of the basics while hoping to avoid the pandemic sweeping his city and province. “Now I and my family and many people here are hopeful that everything will improve.”

Things will be almost the same there as the last time you visited, if you’re one of the more than a million Canadians who ordinarily visit the island each winter. In some ways, it will actually be better.

Most resorts will be back in business this winter and offering the same kind of all-inclusive holiday experiences as in the past. Many have used the pandemic shutdown during the  to improve and renovate facilities, and internet connectivity in Cuba has improved dramatically.

Cuba is doing everything possible to make tourists welcome, comfortable and healthy. Masking and health protocols are definitely part of life in Cuba and its resorts today, like everywhere else, but otherwise, things will seem much like old times for repeat visitors.

“This winter, Canadians will be happy to go back to the Cuba they know and love,” writes Lessner Gomez Molina, director of Cuban’s MinTur office in Toronto. “All the hotels and companies of the tourism sector (over 2,500) that are open have been certified with the health and safety protocols, the hotel staff at the main destinations have been vaccinated, and by November, over 90 per cent of the population will be vaccinated as well. During the downtime due to COVID, the hotels have been refurbished and improved,” and Wi-Fi service has been expanded and improved in most hotels. “All tourism workers are fully vaccinated. Cuba is a safe destination. The kindness of its inhabitants and the tranquility of its streets reaffirm this.”

The return to normal is slower in Cuba’s cities and towns, where locals have experienced real shortages of foods and consumer goods. Like its resorts, at least some of Cuba’s restaurants have access to supplies and distribution of foods not available to locals. You may find it disturbing, but it is also a reality, that without visitors with cash and plastic in hand, there is widespread unemployment and almost no money in circulation.

If you want to add to the good you do when you visit Cuba, tip generously — in Canadian money or euros if possible (U.S. currency is prohibited for use on the island), but not with loonies or toonies, though, as foreign coins cannot be exchanged in Cuba.

Concerned that you, as a tourist, might be taking food from the mouths of hungry locals? Gomez Molina says:

“It’s the other way around. The tourism sector operates separately and independently from the other sectors of the economy and does not in any way take away food from the ‘family basket.’ Tourism is an important source of income for the economy; better tourism performance, better economy, more products will be available in the local markets.”

Tourists who want to be sure they’re helping real Cubans should be discriminating, says Kristen MacQueen, a Canadian who lives full-time in Havana with her Cuban husband, Abel Pez Cespedes. Together, they are in charge of WowCuba, a cycle touring and adventure travel company that collaborates with her family’s Charlottetown, P.E.I. company, MacQueen’s Bike Shop.

“When choosing private home stays, I personally like to find out if the owner lives there. Even if they’re show-stoppers design-wise (there’s a lot of Instagram marketing in this business based on the cover, not content), I tend to shy away if I know there’s a foreign ‘investor’ involved or if I suspect staff are not fairly compensated. Who gets the lion’s share of the profits? Who’s benefitting the most from your stay, a working-class family in Cuba? Ideally, that’s what you should aim for if you want to ensure your travel has a bigger impact in the local economy. Choosing tour operators who select ethical operators to collaborate with is one way to simplify that whole business if travellers are so inclined.”

Any money you give your server or a local merchant is likely to get shared with a lot of family and extended family members. And Canadian dollars or euros will very likely be exchanged for up to three times the value you’d get from the airport currency exchange or a Cuban bank ATM. Although you get 19.4 Cuban pesos for every Canadian dollar at the currency exchange, they’re worth a lot more on the street. Despite the high inflation Cubans have experienced, however, most contacts expect prices for tourists to be similar to what they’ve been in the past.

Cuba is a land of ironies, and its monetary system follows suit. In January, it replaced its dual-currency system — Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) and Cuban pesos (CUPs) — with a new, if unintended, dual-currency system: CUPs and foreign cash. The CUC, which was created to redirect foreign cash currency being brought to Cuba to state banking institutions, has been eliminated. New “MLC stores” that only accept credit cards or digital payments based on foreign currency have been established and businesses have moved rapidly to accepting digital payment, where, formerly, only cash had been used. Cuba, where cash was king until recently, is rapidly becoming more plastic-friendly.

Some private operators will accept payment in foreign cash currency, MacQueen expects.

“And maybe they’ll offer unofficial exchanges at rates more favourable than to be found in Cuban banking/currency exchange institutions. But we won’t have a better handle on how most private entrepreneurs handle visitors with foreign cash until things begin to open up a little more.”

All contacts say the resorts will be fully supplied and that most have back-up power so occasional blackouts do not affect them. The picture is more varied if you want to stay in a casa particular (private guest home). These have become widespread in Cuba and can often be very comfortable and pleasant. All are equipped with air conditioning and en suite bathrooms.

Staying in a casa particular is one of the best ways to get to know Cuba and Cubans, with the money you pay going into Cuban pockets and the local economy. Some, but not all of them, will be back in business, depending on their ability to obtain food and other supplies. One of my favourites, in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara, at the point of writing, is unsure about even being able to supply soap, much less food for guests. This may change quickly. It’s important to inquire.

“COVID has affected countries with strong economies. Imagine Cuba — the impact is greater,” says Larabi, who operates the casa particular Casa Larabi in Playa Rancho Luna on the south coast near Cienfuegos. “I do not believe that hotel tourism is affected by the lack of food. The government works to satisfy tourism. I am more afraid of private home tourism, where it is difficult to find foods like eggs and bread. ”

Larabi himself has secured food supplies and expects normal operation and fairly normal prices, and expects to be able to overcome supply problems. Food, he says, “is certainly a challenge; however we have a taxi that helps us with shopping. I cook the bread myself.”

So it varies, and it’s important, if you plan on staying in a casa to locate choice ones well in advance, get in touch, and find out if they’re still in business and can feed you (many do great dinners as well as breakfasts). A great source of current info on casas is the website and free app Cuba Junky.

With COVID coming under control and most of the population vaccinated, things are moving back to normal, though Cuba’s health system was close to collapse in late summer. The resort areas have health clinics and reasonably stocked pharmacies. MacQueen reports that quality medical services continue to be widely available in Cuba and international clinics have remained open during the pandemic.

While Canadians can easily get to Cuba via scheduled or charter airlines, it’s a lot harder for Americans. MacQueen says the few fights available on American airlines are pricey, and most have been full for months.

“Trump cut off all flights (commercial and charter) to anywhere other than Havana, and Biden’s not made any move to reverse the damage, so that’s been a hardship for Cuban Americans travelling to other provinces to visit family members.”

For Americans living in northern states, travel through Canada is probably best.

U.S. regulations don’t permit U.S.-Cuba travel for tourism purposes. According to their rules, Americans (and those travelling directly from U.S. territory to Cuba) must fit their visits into one of 12 categories. MacQueen says “Support the Cuban People” is the most commonly-used category.

If you visit, it won’t be quite like your last trip to Cuba. The internet will work better and they’ll take Canadian credit cards in more places. You’ll need a mask and proof of vaccination. But Cuba and Cubans will be more than glad to see you.

In Playa Rancho Luna, Larabi certainly will be. Already, he has Airbnb reservations. And he’s been stocking up. “I have over 150 kilograms of fresh frozen mango and over 150 kilograms of frozen avocado to make guacamole.” I’m eager to get there again and try some.

Ish Theilheimer

Ish Theilheimer

Ish Theilheimer lives in Golden Lake, Ontario, where he runs, writes and performs in musicals for Stone Fence Theatre – www.stonefence.ca. He has been a journalist and political communicator,...