I've been waiting to see my husband in Pinar del Rio for 10 months. But, is traveling to Cuba the right thing to do?
cassie yeldham cassieincuba ethical cuba travel
The author and her Cuban husband, who she has not seen in 10 months. Photo: Cassie Yeldham

Are you thinking about going to Cuba? Do you have a loved one there? Perhaps you’ve been separated for months and are patiently awaiting your return. Maybe you’re waiting for that flight that keeps getting cancelled, or you just don’t want to be cooped up in a quarantine hotel in Havana. Maybe you’re just desperate for a mojito. Whatever your story, the wait might soon be over… 

On the 6th September 2021, MINTUR (the Cuban Ministry of Tourism) announced that the island would be opening to tourism, once again, on the 15th November. Yet, as exciting as that may sound, does it mean that you should go? 

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu when I saw the news. On the 15th November 2020 the same thing happened: Cuban borders were opened and tourism was poised to begin again. The borders had been closed since 24th March 2020 – a date that will be forever imprinted in my memory – and the island had somewhat successfully managed to keep the number of COVID cases at bay. 

“Cubans have long been renowned for their impeccable hospitality. They are the most generous people you will likely encounter.

But right now, it’s not the Cuba you knew and the tables need to turn: it’s their time to receive generosity from us.” 

I had personally been waiting to see my husband for 6 months, so this news was like music to my ears. It seems, however, that many other people were as desperate to get back to the island as I was. In a flurry of overexcitement to see loved ones and bring in essential supplies, everything backfired and the situation in Cuba worsened significantly. 

cassieincuba on video call with her husband ronnie in Pinar del rio
Video chats like this have kept the author and her husband in touch. Photo: Cassie Yeldham

By January 2021, the COVID cases in Cuba were soaring. The government was forced to crack down once more, introducing stricter local lockdowns and obligatory hotel quarantines for anyone entering the country. But sadly, even with these harsher measures, the grass didn’t get any greener.

Is the Face of Havana Changing?

The virus had already taken too strong a hold of the island. Long queues for empty supermarket shelves; contradictory and confusing quarantine rules; an untimely economic reform leading to unobtainable inflation rates; an increasing number of COVID cases but a decreasing amount of medicine…it was the perfect storm. This devastating amalgamation of factors pushed the Cuban people to the brink, inducing unprecedented yet long overdue protests in July.

a cuban cocotaxi ethical cuba travel
The Cuban Cocotaxi is popular amongst tourists. Photo: Michael Freas

Just a couple of months later, the Government announced that they’re welcoming back tourism. Is it too good to be true? Factoring all of the above into the equation, you can imagine that there are some complex ethical barriers here. The country certainly isn’t out of the COVID woods yet, so there’s a lot to consider before you book that flight. 

Primarily, it’d be a start to consider why the Government is restarting tourism in the midst of an ongoing wave of COVID, and whilst there are little conditions for its people let alone the tourists.

Whilst they state that their vaccination program will be well underway by November, and they’ll only be ‘introducing tourism gradually’, there are still many people asking whether it’s too soon and too risky. 

cubas abdala vaccine
Cuba’s Abdala vaccine is made on the island. Photo: Ernesto Millan

However, the island has been without tourism, one of its top sources of income, for 18 months. It is struggling economically beyond comprehension and frankly they are desperate for the dollar. 

Just remember that booking an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, eating from the unlimited buffet cart that the neighboring hungry village could only dream of, might not be the most ethical path to take. 

But will this desperation come at a cost to the health of the people? It’s a catch-22 situation. Cuba will be damned if they stay closed for much longer and they’ll be damned if they open. The only thing you and I can do is take it upon ourselves to travel responsibly, support them with our business, and not add fuel to the fire. 

ethical cuba travel in pinar del rio
Towns like Pinar del Rio, west of Havana depend on tourists for income. Photo: Michael Freas
With that in mind, the first thing to think about is whether you actually need to go to Cuba.

If you just want to indulge in a mojito on the beach and ride in a classic car, I’d recommend holding off on your Cuba holiday for now. 

But if you have friends or family there, and/or are prepared to travel with real meaningful impact, like taking a suitcase or three full of medicine and other supplies, you’re heading in the right direction. 

How to Have an Authentic Cuban Travel Experience

Just remember that booking an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, eating from the unlimited buffet cart that the neighboring hungry village could only dream of, might not be the most ethical path to take. 

It’d also be risky to expect Cuba to be the same as before.

You should already know that the Cubans have been through a lot. Historically, Cuba is a nation who suffers. Right now, they have less than ever, arguably on par with – if not worse than – the Special Period during the early 90’s. 

So whether you’ve been to the island before or just have your pre-conceptualized idea of Cuba from the media, it’s important to consider the social, economic and political factors which have changed the island completely over the last 18 months. Buffing up on your Cuban history has always been advised even for pre-pandemic travel, but it is now more pertinent than ever to be culturally aware of your surroundings. 

gran hotel manzana plaza
Pre-pandemic in front of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana.

There’s always an extra level of weariness that a Cuban goes through in life that a foreigner just can’t comprehend. And thus, whilst the pandemic has been challenging for the entire world, we have at least had the luxuries of unwavering electricity, unlimited food and accessible internet to cure the boredom. Meanwhile the Cubans haven’t had access to a mere paracetamol (aspirin) for their headache, let alone anything more substantial. 

If you’re still with me, and you still want to go to Cuba, you should also consider how you will add support and value to the Cubans during your trip.

Cubans have long been renowned for their impeccable hospitality. They are the most generous people you will likely encounter. They live in a country where access to both basic and luxury supplies is incredibly scarce (now more than ever), yet whatever they do have, they will want to share it with you. This is one of the reasons why so many fall in love with the island and its inhabitants. 

ethical cuba travel
A tourist peers into Bodeguita del Medio during pre-pandemic times. Photo: Michael Freas

But right now, it’s not the Cuba you knew and the tables need to turn: it’s their time to receive generosity from us

Until the situation improves, it would not be right to expect the same amount of generosity and hospitality that you would have received in Cuba two years ago. That’s not to say that the people won’t try to treat you the same; it’s to say the onus is on you to be mindful of their current living situation and to prepare yourself accordingly. 

a cuban coffee and cigar
Visiting a friend in Cuba usually includes a cafecito, cigar and conversation. Photo: Michael Freas

As an example: the simplest act of visiting a Cuban’s home for a cafecito may now be a more worrisome event for them, because there may be no coffee. They might want to invite you for dinner, but you can’t imagine the laborious lengths they will have to go to to find enough rice and black beans to fill the table like before. They may want to host you in their home, but they can’t find nor afford detergent to wash the bedding. For a proud culture, this could be debilitating for them. 

So ultimately, Cuba isn’t off limits and, in my opinion, it’s time for the economy to start again and for foreigners to enter and take as many supplies as possible. Right now, we need to go to Cuba with the intention to give more than we’re going to take. We need to go to Cuba with a wallet full of dollars and a suitcase full of medicine. We need to go to Cuba fully vaccinated, armed with lateral flow tests (antigen self-test) and masks, and we need to be mentally equipped for both a challenging and a beautiful experience.

If you can’t manage that, I’d suggest waiting a little while longer. 

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Cassie is a Cuba travel planner and freelance writer. In 2016 she threw caution to the wind and swapped office life in London for the slow life in rural Cuba. Here she met her now-husband, and together they navigate the complexities of cross-cultural, cross-continental and bilingual married life. An advocate for responsible and sustainable travel, Cassie specializes in promoting immersive and meaningful experiences in Cuba. She works with US, European and Cuban travel agencies & tour operators - as well as private clients - in planning, organizing, and curating bespoke itineraries. Endeavoring to support both the local environment and community, Cassie and her husband are building a rural eco-project and home in the outskirts of Viñales. Her idea of heaven is exploring Cuba’s countryside on horseback, ending with a bowl of 'arroz y frijoles' and a swig of rum at sunset. Though a fresh coconut on the beach wouldn’t go a miss either.

1 comment

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  • Thank you for this, Cassie. As someone who in the past organized a number of ethical journeys to Cuba, I know the range of thinking in the US and elsewhere about going to Cuba, and the shape of poverty there, as well as the extraordinary accomplishments. Your article is wonderful. Says just what travelers should be hearing, in general and even more do now.
    Hoping you see your querido soon.
    Thanks again.
    Anya Achtenberg

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