Several of my friends just returned from a trip to Cuba and I've been reliving their adventures in Havana and Santiago through photos. Leisure travel to Cuba from the U.S. is still banned, but my friends were able to enter the country through the "people-to-people" program in which visitors interact with Cuban citizens in cultural activities. As I scrolled through the photos of 1950s-era cars and sleepy streets, it struck me that these areas will soon be transformed. The travel industry is moving at full speed with flights, cruises, and accommodations for Cuba, making it the next hot tourist spot. And while the tourism trade remains tightly regulated, preserving the country's unique culture and character will be increasingly challenging as more visitors inevitably flock to Cuba.
On Tuesday, Carnival Corp. announced that it will begin offering seven-night ship-based tours to Cuba from Miami starting in May 2016, pending approval from Cuban authorities. The tours will provide cultural, artistic, faith-based, and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens, according to Carnival.
"We know there is strong demand from travelers who want to immerse themselves in Cuban culture, so this is a historic opportunity for us to enable more people to experience Cuban society," said Chief Executive Arnold Donald in a statement.
Last week, JetBlue began offering direct flights from New York to Havana and Airbnb has been doing business in Havana since April. As visitors pour into Havana and other parts of Cuba, the country should heed the lessons of tourist cities. Barcelona, for example, is at risk of becoming a tourist trap as locals get pushed out by rising real estate prices and noisy bars. Tourism dollars may boost Barcelona's economy, but the city must also maintain a good quality of life for locals or it will lose its charm.
In June, Barcelona's newly elected mayor, Ada Colau, noted that "more and more tourists are disappointed when they visit Barcelona because...everyone wants to see the real city, but if the centre fills up with multinationals and big stores that you can find in any other city, it doesn't work," reported The Guardian.
It's tempting to romanticize Cuba as a country untouched by the modern world when in reality, a robust tourist industry could benefit its economy and modernize its infrastructure. But hopefully, Cuba will find a balance in improving its citizens' lives while preserving its unique history and culture.