Last month my wife and I fulfilled a long-held dream by visiting Cuba for the first time. Like many tourists we encountered there (a LOT of Canadians), what prompted us to splash the cash was the thought that with US-Cuban relations finally thawing after 55 years, the island is set to become somehow less unique, less alluring. Less special.
Did we have this impression simply because Americans are set to once again arrive in Cuba en masse? I don’t think so. It’s more that closer ties with the USA mean more inward investment into Cuba. It’s much needed and it will greatly improve people’s lives, but it’s likely to bring in the trappings of the modern world whose absence is such a part of the island’s appeal for travellers.
It would be such a shame if, after helping to restore Havana’s historic but faded architecture to its former glory, Western businesses defaced it with endless advertising billboards; or if the city’s famous and colourful 50s classic cars were all replaced by their modern-day, characterless descendants.
Clearly Cuba stands on the edge of a new dawn and will need to manage progress carefully if it’s not to be run over by its wheels. But in fact, US investment isn’t the only source of potential change in Cuba; change is also coming from within.
In 2011 the Cuban government relaxed its rules on citizens running their own businesses, and its restrictions on employing non-family members. In Havana, this led directly to the welcome introduction of paladares, private restaurants opened by people in their own homes, which are pretty much the only choice if you want a decent meal in the city.
But other businesses were created too. Raúl Quintana Ramírez and Danny Cabrera Martínez set up Cuban Connection Tour (www.cubanconnectiontour.com) in 2012 offering personalised, private tours for independent-minded visitors. More than 300 5-star TripAdvisor reviews later they are going strong, with Raúl’s wife Yaima also involved.
I don’t usually do rave reviews of tourism businesses (unless they’re KBC clients, obviously!). But my wife and I were fortunate enough to have Raúl and Yaima as our guides on a day trip from Havana to Viñales. Friendly, knowledgeable and keen to help visitors truly understand their country, it was a real pleasure to spend time with them exploring the amazing landscapes of this region.
As a travel marketer, it’s hard not to be impressed by what they have achieved in the face of some significant challenges. Internet access is limited and slow, which means it’s hard to undertake any online marketing. And the traditional travel industry route of becoming a local partner for high-volume international tour operators isn’t open to them either; in Cuba, if you want to work with the likes of Kuoni or Virgin Holidays, you have to be a state-owned travel company. This means that for Cuban Connection, TripAdvisor is pretty much the only source of business. And of course, anybody could seriously hurt them with a bad review.
(They do, in fact, have one ‘terrible’ review on TripAdvisor. Just the one. It was posted by someone who never booked with them and is so patently ridiculous I’m surprised TripAdvisor haven’t removed it).
You pay a lot more for a private tour. It would have been easy to get on a bus with a load of other tourists and do the same sights in a much longer day and a less personal way. But Raúl, Yaima and Danny have realised that their country holds a real fascination for visitors, and there are plenty of people out there who will pay more to get a genuine, personal insight into Cuba. This is the service they set out to provide, and they do it very well.
Raúl and Yaima were candid with us about their own hopes. They are building something for themselves and their kids, and they want Cuba to evolve. They can’t wait to welcome more American visitors. But they hope Cuba can retain control of this evolution and in doing so, retain its unique personality and appeal. I hope they get their wish.