Note: This story was first broadcasted on Jan. 16, 2017.
When Donald Trump becomes President on Friday, what we’ll be asking in South Florida is: Will he cancel normalized relations with Cuba? And will he still let Americans travel there?
But here's another question: If Trump does allow Americans to visit Cuba, will they reconsider how they visit the island? Will they think about something Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco told me a couple years ago:
“Here’s one of the worst things that you could ever say to a Cuban-American: ‘I want to go to Cuba before it changes.’ That’s like saying, ‘I want to go to North Korea before it changes.’”
That can be a tactless thing to say to Cubans in Cuba, too. It suggests you prefer to see Cuba locked in poverty and communism—just so you can take a cool trip back to the tropical 1950s.
In total, Cuba received almost 615,000 visitors from the U.S. last year. That includes 285,000 U.S. citizens – up 74 percent from the year before. By law they still have to register under one of a dozen non-tourist categories, like cultural exchange. But increasingly, yanquis are going for rum, cigars and taking selfies in front of vintage Chevrolets.
That kind of travel was perhaps best (or worst) reflected last year when the Kardashians took their reality show to Cuba – Instagramming themselves smoking Cohibas and driving around in (surprise!) a '57 Chevy convertible.
It’s the sort of thing that understandably annoys Cuba travel expert Sissi Rodriguez.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy a Cuban cigar," says Rodriguez. "But there is if that’s all you’re after.”
Rodriguez, who came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 14, is executive director of Roots of Hope, a Miami organization that seeks to build bridges between Cubans and Cuban-Americans.
Roots of Hope now runs a travel company called Discover Cuba. It’s part of what Rodriguez calls more socially conscious travel: not to see a theme-park Cuba “before it changes,” but to engage a more genuine Cuba that normalization is supposed to be helping to change.
“If you’re going to go, don’t do it because Cuba has been romanticized to an almost ridiculous point," says Rodriguez at her offices in Coral Gables.
"You’re not going to find everyone dancing on the streets to salsa. You are going to find people who want to have a conversation with you about politics or a lot of other things. Change has to come from Cubans looking at things differently, and having those conversations helps.”
Discover Cuba steers customers away from state-run accommodations and toward private businesses, like bed-and-breakfasts known as casas particulares or restaurants called paladares – President Obama dined at one in Havana last year – often inside Cubans’ homes. Not to mention services like guides and transportation.
Rodriguez argues that in turn helps make Cubans more economically independent.
“That’s travelers who are choosing to empower those entrepreneurs,” she says.
A number of other U.S. travel companies are moving toward more socially conscious Cuba tour packages. And aside from seeking out those independent business owners, one of their big emphases is getting Americans out of Havana. A big reason:
“Because Havana is where you’re really finding the rum, the cigars, the posing in front of the old cars and then you’re out of there,” says April Springer, custom travel planner at International Expeditions, an Alabama company that promotes traveling Cuba consciously.
Springer says she understands Americans who want to see Cuba "before the Golden Arches and the Starbucks are there. But we are losing that people-to-people, that authentic travel. So we travel to more than just Havana.”
By seeing other towns on the island, many International Expeditions clients say they get a richer appreciation of Cuba and Cubans – and a more unvarnished look at the country’s economic paralysis, the result of both the U.S. trade embargo and communist mismanagement.
“When we were in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the poverty was very upsetting,” says Gail Susholtz, who visited Cuba last fall through International Expeditions with her Austin, Texas, supper club.
But at the same time, Susholtz and her friends experienced something uniquely and enchantingly Cuban during their stay in Trinidad that they probably would have missed in Havana.
"The host of the casa particular where we were staying was a Santería priest," says Susholtz, referring to the Afro-Cuban religion popular on the island. "The wife was becoming initiated into the religion, as was her son.
"It’s a really multi-layered culture, and you can’t see it by just going to the famous bars. When we were staying at our house in Havana we talked to the people in the kitchen all the time about their lives.”
Americans like Susholtz insist this isn’t about turning Cuba travel into Peace Corps excursions. But they say it is about asking whether, at least for now, a trip to Cuba should be as frivolous as a trip to Cancún.