One-on-One with Cuba Journal’s Simons Chase

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Cuba Journal editor-in-chief Simons Chase recently offered his expert perspective on Cuba and the growing tourism industry there to Hospitality21 editor-in-chief Carol Sorgen. Here is what he had to say on the destination that everyone’s talking about now.

A look at the Cuban street art scene
A look at the Cuban street art scene

Cuba is on everyone’s travel radar now. What do visitors need to know about traveling there?

Cuba isn’t a marketing concept invented by the cruise industry. It’s a real place with a history and complexity. It’s probably the most interesting place in the world today because of how it impacts visitors. In terms of architecture, art, music and the warmth of the Cubans themselves, you’re not going to find another place that will leave a lasting memory like Cuba. On a fun and superficial level, riding around old Havana in an antique American car is a great experience. On a deeper level, Cuba will challenge most travelers – visiting from modern cities – who associate newness with relevance and happiness with abundance.

How has Cuba been handling the influx of visitors?

The Cuban government is not in a hurry to attract masses of visitors as soon as possible. There is a practical limitation in Cuba’s limited infrastructure to rapidly scale the travel and tourism industry – and I suspect an ideological reason to want to manage growth from a political perspective. In any case, the Cuban government has stepped up preservation and development efforts in Old Havana – and now there are regular small cruise ships docking there. Even so, Old Havana is a big place, and I think it’s still a fascinating place to visit. Outside Havana, there is a lot of development and renovation in Veradero, a popular beach resort area dominated by all-inclusive offerings.

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What does the easing of travel restrictions mean to Cuba? And to relations between Cuba and the rest of the world?

Cuba’s integration with the world economy and society will take time. While Europeans and Canadians have been traveling to Cuba for decades (Cuba received 3.5 million visitors last year – mostly non-Americans), the island nation remains isolated. One thing is for sure: for Cuba, the next five years is going to be interesting!

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Flowers of Havana
Flowers of Havana

What are some of the must-sees when visiting Cuba?

Cuba is unlike most other place to travel – especially in comparison to the Caribbean. You get what you put into it. There are nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba. One of my favorite places is Ernest Hemingway’s home, the Finca Vigia, which is now a museum preserved just as he left it in 1960. There is also a vibrant art scene in Cuba. I suggest taking to time to find artists in galleries as well as in the streets of major cities.

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What kind of experience can visitors expect? How will it differ from, say, a typical Caribbean trip?

Cuba is not like any other Caribbean island, except of course for the beaches, palm trees and amazing sunsets. Its isolation has preserved much of its authentic character. And with 11 million people living under a socialist-communist political and economic system, the country has evolved in ways unfamiliar to most people traveling from Europe or North America. Cuba’s history and circumstance offers hidden depths for visitors looking for an experience. It’s the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist.

What do you expect to see in the future when it comes to tourism and hospitality in Cuba?

Cuba’s hotel construction pipeline is dominated by 5-star product. It’s clear their policy is quality over quantity. Today, the best way to experience Cuba – at least on a first trip – is to go with a tour company that has years of experience operating on the ground in Cuba. I don’t think this will change anytime soon. One of my favorites is Peggy Goldman’s Friendly Planet Travel. She’s been there from the beginning – when it became legal for U.S. tour companies to operate in Cuba.

Photos courtesy of Cuba Journal

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