Business & Real Estate

Travel to Cuba rises as walls come down

Two very different taxis vie for customers along the central plaza in Holguin, a city in eastern Cuba, in 2012.
Two very different taxis vie for customers along the central plaza in Holguin, a city in eastern Cuba, in 2012. McClatchy Newspapers file

When nearly 40 Sacramento-area car enthusiasts depart for Cuba later this month, they’ll be among an increasing wave of American visitors making the trip since December, when the United States and Cuba announced their mutual intent to normalize relations.

That thaw in the long-standing barrier between the two countries is spurring some to travel to Cuba before too much of its existing culture disappears.

“This might be one of the last chances to see the Cuban car culture as it is,” said Karen McClaflin, executive director of the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento, which is leading its first trip to Cuba. “But it’s also a chance to bask in the country’s overall culture before it is changed by time and economic development.”

About 170,000 authorized U.S. travelers went to Cuba in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, more than twice the number of visitors in 2011. Cuban officials believe thousands of Americans visit the country illegally each year, without official authorization.

Mayra Crespo, the South Gate-based travel consultant who organized the Sacramento auto museum’s March 27-April 4 trip, said inquiries about travel to Cuba have multiplied “like three times” since the countries’ joint announcement on Dec. 17.

“We have been bombarded,” she added. “We’ve even been getting calls from a lot of people who want to open for business in Cuba. Of course, we have to reject those immediately. We cannot do that.”

Crespo, who has traveled to Cuba multiple times with Marimar Travel & Tours, said the positive interest mirrors that of Cuban citizens. In Cuba, she says, “hope is in the air.”

No overnight boom

December’s joint-nation announcement prompted mixed reactions from economists and business experts, some of whom anticipate Walmart stores, McDonald’s restaurants and shiny new American cars popping up on the Caribbean nation’s nearly 42,500 square miles of land. Others have speculated that California might become a prime provider of telecommunications products and other exports.

Mike Roten, a Fair Oaks resident, made a weeklong trip to Cuba in mid-February as a member of The California Repercussions, a 50-piece band that performs throughout Northern California. Roten, who works for a large technology company, said he was struck by Cuba’s potential for new technology, noting there are “only 1,200 legal Internet customers in the whole country ... (and) no cellphones of course.”

In recent weeks, the Cuban government announced the launch of free Wi-Fi service in a Havana cultural center, a breakthrough in an Internet-starved country where most access has been limited to public hotels and offices.

Jock O’Connell, a Sacramento-based international trade expert, said expectations of a quick economic boom in Cuba are overstated.

“It all sounds exciting, but you have to remember that it’s an exceedingly poor country,” O’Connell said. “Aspirations of economic development run up against the hard reality that, unless there’s a massive amount of foreign aid, Cuba will not be a wealthy country.”

As for the notion that California-made tech products could help meet Cuba’s need for online and telecommunications infrastructure, O’Connell pointed out that “somebody’s going to have to finance that, to build out that infrastructure. I just don’t see a big market there unless someone steps up to finance it.”

To be sure, there is room for improvement in exports. Of the record $174.13 billion in merchandise exports shipped out of California in 2014, O’Connell said Cuba received a mere $675,025. Of that, he said, about half that amount – $306,370 – went toward exports of hearing aids.

Initially, O’Connell said, Cuba’s economic gains will be centered on tourism.

Tourism a boon

Tupper Hull, vice president of communications with the Sacramento-based Western States Petroleum Association, was part of a group of 24 that visited Cuba in January. The trip organizer was Road Scholar, a 40-year-old educational travel tour organization.

Hull said he was impressed with the friendliness and openness of the Cuban people, from physicians and academics to taxi drivers and street vendors.

“Our trip was planned last summer, well before the normalization announcement, but I can tell you this: The people we talked to were ecstatic about (the announcement) and really saw it as an enormous opportunity. Their attitude about economic progress was, ‘Bring it on.’ It was universal.”

Hull said Cubans’ interest in the United States is evident, including the live broadcast in Cuba of President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address.

Jeff Swain, a member of the CAM board of directors, started organizing the museum’s trip to Cuba a year ago. Already, he’s seen a more relaxed attitude since the December announcement about normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

“Everything is still pretty controlled, but the early cutoff date where they wanted everybody’s name well in advance of the trip has changed. Now, they say we can add people right up to the week of the trip.” That made it easier to accommodate an additional 10 people who joined the trip after the December announcement.

During their Cuban travels, both Hull and Roten were struck by the economic impact of the years-long U.S. trade embargo.

“Regardless of your view of the relationship between our country and Cuba over the years, the one thing that is very apparent is that the embargo we had in place has been really hurtful to Cuba’s people,” Hull said. “Their economy is in shambles.”

Toothpaste, spark plugs

Hull said some of his fellow travelers packed a suitcase with sought-after items, including art supplies and guitar strings, to hand out to ordinary Cuban citizens. Hull said other common items such as toothpaste, toilet paper and latex gloves “are very hard to come by” in Cuba.

The same is true for car parts. Roten, a car enthusiast, said he saw lots of colorful, 1950s-vintage Plymouth, Dodge and Chevrolet models in Cuba, but a closer inspection revealed the challenges facing vehicle owners: “You can see there’s like 10 layers of paint on some of those cars, something they’ve had to do because of the rust and wear you get in that coastal climate.”

Aware that many Cuban owners of classic American-made cars scrounge for parts and fabricate some by hand to keep their rides running, McClaflin said some in her group plan to pack spark plugs and other small engine parts to give away. She doesn’t anticipate any problems with the unusual cargo, although she noted that luggage weight cannot exceed 44 pounds per traveler coming into Cuba.

As for what they bring back home, U.S. travelers are now limited to no more than $400 in Cuban souvenirs.

Roten took advantage of the $100 limit on Cuban-made rum and cigars but said the overall experience was worth much more.

“I would tell people to go to Cuba right now before it gets watered down,” Roten said. “Because right now, it’s perfect.”

Call The Bee’s Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

IF YOU’RE GOING

What’s changed: Under relaxed rules announced by President Barack Obama in December 2014, Americans can now travel more easily to Cuba, although there are limitations. For instance, Obama approved the use of U.S. credit and debit cards, but most Cuban banks are not yet equipped to handle them.

Join a group: Independent tourist travel from the United States to Cuba is still off the table. However, “educational” group travel is primarily arranged through the federal People-to-People Educational Exchange and select travel agencies approved by Cuba and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. In general, travel is allowed for 12 categories, including: family visits; official U.S. government business; journalistic activity; professional research and meetings; religious and educational activities; athletic and entertainment performances; and humanitarian projects.

Rum and cigars: Yes, you can bring them back to the United States, but only up to a combined value of $100. Overall, Americans can bring home up to $400 in Cuban souvenirs. There is no limit on most art, books or informational materials brought back to this country.

Internet: Most Cubans do not have Internet access. Travelers can obtain Wi-Fi access at some hotels and Internet cafes, but there’s typically a $4.50 hourly rate.

Costs: Chartered flights between Miami and Havana, lodging, meals and daily transportation are included in a typical eight-night package costing around $5,000 per traveler. But you’ll have to pay your own way to and from Miami.

More info: The U.S. State Department site regarding travel to Cuba is travel.state.gov.

Source: Bee research

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