With an embargo in place since 1962, what was once an American sun-kissed haven suddenly became off limits. However, the cultural wonder of old-town Cuba with its lively casinos, crystal waters and affordable luxury hotels are once again salsa dancing in the minds of many as U.S.-Cuba relations soften.
As both countries move forward to reestablish diplomatic relations — which includes reopening the US embassy in Havana and loosening travel restrictions to Americans — Conan O’Brien tested the waters by filming his upcoming March 4 show on the communist island nation.
A news release from the show said, “The trip gives the ‘Conan’ audience a rare glimpse into the daily life of a country not often seen by American viewers.”
Only a one-hour flight from Miami, this could open the door for other American productions such as Rent, who announced last month that, in coordination with the Cuban National Council of Performing Arts, they will be performing the first full Broadway show in Cuba in 50 years.
It could also be a first step for American tourists to begin traveling to the island via air and sea.
Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival Corp. notes that, “Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, so there’s some exciting possibilities. Some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country,” although other issues “need to be taken into consideration if this market opens up.”
Senior executive at Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck, Katharine Bonner, is one of the companies that runs under a cultural exchange license and charters small planes into the country. She said, “Once people get a glimpse of Cuba, they always want to see more. Americans are very curious about a country that is 90 miles off our coast but has been off limits for so long.”
She also says that the isolation is very appealing. There are no McDonalds or Starbucks and she’s certain that once travel options open to Americans, there will be a rush to see the frozen-in-time island before it becomes “Americanized.”
There are already several international companies operating in Cuba such as Melia, a luxury Spanish hotel chain with 26 properties on the island. Other large-names such as Marriott International and Hilton Worldwide say they welcome future opportunities in being able to include Cuba.
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson stated, “We will take our cues from the U.S. government, but look forward to opening hotels in Cuba, as companies from others countries have done already.”
As of now, the regular travel ban stands. Only Cuban relatives, academics and accredited people of cultural education programs are allowed to enter the country. Last year, the Department of Commerce said 170,000 authorized travelers entered Cuba and enjoyed one immediate change: being able to return to the US with $400 in Cuban goods including alcohol and tobacco. Cuban cigars could be the next souvenir trend.