By Ken Kraetzer
Cuba is opening up for American visitors and trade, encouraged by the new relationship between the two countries. The recent trips by the Pope and President Obama have generated wide spread interest in visiting this intriguing neighbor nearly 100 miles south of Florida. cbsi had a chance to speak with two business colleagues who have recently made the trip to Cuba and described very positive experiences.
“People were very nice in Cuba, we enjoyed the restaurants in homes, lots of music and art,” reports Marlene Follick of Harrison, NY-based Protravel International (www.protravelinc.com) regarding her September 2015 visit. The veteran travel agent flew from Miami on a new edition of Eastern Airlines for a seven day trip to Havana and various points throughout the country.
“Guides are a necessity for making sightseeing arrangements, finding local restaurants, and taking trips around the island. There was little mobile or Wi-Fi service, phone booths were in use on the streets,” she said. US dollars and credit cards were not accepted at the time, so the first stop was to a local bank to convert American currency to the local Peso. Many of the visitors she met were from Canada, Europe and South America.
Getting Around Town
Marlene described the unique sight of vintage 1950s cars driving the streets of Havana as few cars have not been available since trade relationships were broken following the 1950s revolution. “with Cubans unable to access new cars, maintaining the old ones has been a point of pride”.
She enjoyed the restaurants that were often the living rooms of homes and reports that Cuban chefs are very proud of serving local organically grown produce. Music and dancing were prevalent as well as artists offered paintings. Hosts appreciated small personal American made items; a gift of lipstick was valued by a host. Even sports is on the minds of the locals, for decades a rare point of common interest between Cuba and America. “Everyone is baseball crazy”, she describes.
For a Caribbean beach experience, Marlene reports the Varadero Peninsula, an hour’s drive east of Havana on the north side of the island, is a destination to consider. The area is a narrow stretch of land, Cape Cod like with beaches and resorts. She recommended the Melia Hotel which offers swimming with dolphins. She has also visited the Ernest Hemingway House which is undergoing a restoration in anticipation of increased visitors. Cruise ships have started a service that will take visitors on weeklong trips to Havana, Cienfuegos, on the south side, and Santiago de Cuba on the east end near Guantanamo Bay.
Meeting the People, Face-to-Face
“We took 30 people on a ’People to People’ cultural exchange,” describes Marsha Gordon, President and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester.
“We wanted to see Cuba now that the doors have just opened. It was thrilling to see where President Obama went and to know that we were there,” she said. “It is an amazing place because we know it is about to change so much. The American doors have just opened, trade has started up again.”
Perhaps the vintage 1950s cars will remain a signature item in Havana. As Marsha described, “To see this country that has kind of been in a cocoon, the first thing you notice are the old cars. We spent most of our time in Havana, but we did go up in the mountains to see where the cigars were being made, very beautiful area. A lot of the businesses were in peoples homes like barbershops. We met artists who sell their landscapes and portraits, we all spent a lot of money in Cuba. There were a lot of music and arts programs.”
Marsha described a large farm table movement, “We had wonderful food,” she said in reference to a meal at a local farm. “Everything was fresh and delicious.”
About accommodations, Gordon added, “We stayed at the Four-Star Miramar Hotel, she said adding, “What was really fun was going to Tropicana nightclub, a thrill because we had all seen pictures of people at the Tropicana and it was very much like what we had see in movies and pictures.” She also described some of the infrastructure present within Cuba. “The Cuban people don’t have a lot of cell phones because it is so expensive so instead you see phone booths in use.”
The medical industry is Cuba’s biggest export, so much of their trained physicians and lab staff go to the United States.
Using Your Credit Cards to Travel Smart
While the United States and Cuba have formally allowed for travel to occur for US citizens, much infrastructure – particularly commerce and credit cards – is still a work in progress.
However, in instances where cards are accepted, an in particular if cardholders use their card to purchase travel to Cuba or use their card to make purchase within Cuba, and suffer a covered claim, the insurance carrier will be able to pay the claim or otherwise provide the benefit. As with any benefit associated with a credit card, the cardholder should communicate with the bank and be sure to ask any and all questions related to an upcoming trip, particularly a trip out of the United States.
Travel services and benefits typically available in other parts of the world are still being prepared. If you are planning a trip – or if your customers are planning trips to Cuba – please contact your cbsi representative for updates to all travel and medical related benefits.