Que bolá? An update from Cuba.
An update from Cuba, la isla bonita 🇨🇺
Green? Amber? Red? 🚦
To travel or not to travel, that is the question.
Cuba is currently placed on the list of Amber Countries drawn up by the UK FCDO.
Technically, it’s possible to travel to Cuba now. Even though there are numerous weekly flights to and from Europe with Air Europa, Iberia and Air France we don’t recommend making any travel arrangements to Cuba quite yet.
However, we think the short term outlook is quite positive. I’d like to outline some of the reasons we think Cuba will reopen in time for High Season in October 2021. Cuba’s vaccination programme is now in full-swing and the country is keen to open as soon as possible.
Here is a round-up of relevant news so that you can make an informed choice about travel to Cuba once the moment arrives:
Coronavirus Related News 🦠
Throughout 2020 Cuba was a shining example of how a simple grassroots programme of ‘track and trace’ and a national commitment to facemasks and handwashing can be highly successful in the fight against Covid-19. The population of just under 12 million Cubans suffered few deaths during the first year of the pandemic. Infection rates remained low.
The virus only took off when Cuba reopened to tourists in November 2020. Now in need of COVID-19 immunizations, Cuba is developing and manufacturing a homegrown vaccine.
Vaccination development ⚗️
Lower and middle income countries have been able to sign up for free vaccines with the WHO Covax programme. So why is Cuba producing its own vaccines instead?
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that Cuba already has a very well developed biomedical industry of its own. It has been producing vaccines for national use and export since the 1980’s. Put simply they are working on a Covid-19 vaccine because they can.
The other reason is more complex. Although Cuba’s economy is stretched to the limit, the WHO considers it an upper middle income nation. This is because of Cuba’s excellent national health care system and high levels of free education accessible to all.
Cuba would therefore have to pay the full price for the imported vaccines.
The country’s economy has contracted by 11% since last year. Going it alone is the only viable solution for the cash-strapped Caribbean nation.
This odd situation show’s how much Cuba is an outlier. It’s one of the last Communist countries in the post-Soviet era, still subjected to a severe economic Embargo by the USA. And it’s been an outlier in the COVID pandemic as well.
Cuba’s Vaccine Programme 🔬
In May 2021, Dagmar Garcia Rivera, the research director at the Finlay Vaccine Institute in Havana, announced that two of Cuba’s five vaccine candidates, the Soberana-2 and Abdala vaccines, appear to be highly effective and are both entering the final stage of clinical trials.
Both Soberana-2 and Abdala vaccines are now being used to vaccinate Cubans over the next few months.
Vaccination roll out has started. The elderly and vulnerable have been prioritised along with health workers, tourism and immigrations workers. The focus of vaccination has been on the capital city and surrounding provinces.
The Cuban health system has committed to vaccinating the population of Havana ( approximately 2 million of the 11.4 million Cuban population ) by July 2021. They will then roll out the vaccine so that the entire population should be vaccinated by the end of summer 2021. Excellent news for Cuba whose economy relies on tourism to give the country a much needed injection of hard cash.
If you want to hear more about the Cuban Vaccine Programme listen to this really good podcast .
Nobel Peace Prize Nomination for Brigada Henry Reeve ☮️
Earlier in the pandemic we reported on Cuba’s humanitarian response to MS Braemar . Cuban medical teams travelled to many countries around the world to assist in the battle against Covid-19. The first team of Doctors and medical professionals travelled to Crema in Northern Italy at the height of the first wave of infections.
These medical professionals are part of the Henry Reeve Brigade . The brigade was set up in 2005 as a direct response to a massive earthquake in Kashmir. The devastation killed 70,000 people. In an act of solidarity, Cuba immediately sent 2000 medical staff to the area to assist.
Since then, Cuban medical experts have travelled to emergency and disaster zones in around 50 countries across the world. They offer free medical care and advice wherever they work and regardless of political ideology. They offered assistance to the USA after Hurricane Katrina( 2005 ) . They were the first foreign medics to treat Ebola patients in Africa ( 2014 ). They travelled to both Haiti (2010 ) and Chile ( 2010) after devastating earthquakes. Since 2020, they have travelled to 39 countries to offer medical assistance during Covid-19.
The Henry Reeve Brigade has now been nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their extraordinary humanitarian and internationalist work. If you wish to take action and promote their nomination the Nobel Peace Prize for Cuban Doctors campaign here.
When will Cuba reopen for Tourism? 🏝
Well, that’s the million dollar question and the simple answer is that no one really knows! As the pandemic evolves we have begun to see how each new variant threatens to delay our return to normality.
The facts are as follows:
Currently every traveller to Cuba is obliged to pay for and quarantine in one of a limited selection of quarantine hotels. Travellers are free to leave after 6 days and after receiving 2 negative PCR tests.
At the moment, the only foreigners taking holidays in Cuba are Russians. These travellers come on weekly flights to Varadero, staying in All-Inclusive hotels for traditional sun and sea holidays. They are only permitted to leave the hotel premises after their quarantine and only once they have received 2 negative PCR tests. Most are just happy to just fly and flop on the beach.
In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, there is currently a 9pm curfew throughout the island. Interprovincial travel is not permitted.
Vaccine Rollout 💉
Now that the vaccine programme has started to roll out in Havana, the rate of infection from Coronavirus is likely to drop. The vast majority of infections are concentrated in and around Havana.
While this may seem like gloomy news, Cubanía is very hopeful that Cuba is about to turn a corner. Canada Air has announced that it will restart flights to Cuba from early July and this will probably mark the official re-opening of Cuba for tourism.
If Cuba can control infection in Havana, they have as good as beaten the virus.
A cautious re-opening of Cuba
Although there have been no official notifications about how and when the country will re-open, the best guess is that there will be some limited reopening of the Cuba during the summer months. Most likely beach holidays in all-inclusive resorts will open first because it is easy to have some control over who might be exposed to new infection. Moving into the autumn we imagine a cautious reopening of other provinces, probably starting with the West and Central provinces. A final reopening the entire island to travel and tourism should happen by Christmas 2021.
Cubanía makes a further commitment to reducing our Carbon Footprint 🌱
In order to make the most of this enforced down time, Cubanía Travel has been busy tweaking our operation so that we’re fit and nimble for when travel restarts. We have already carbon-footprinted all the Cubanía branded trips we sell online. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we can all play an important role in finding solutions to the climate crisis and we must continue to protect the natural and social environments where we live, work and travel.
Cuba is an “accidental Eden” when it comes to the environment and sustainable practices.
Years of hardship and a comparative lack of industrialization and development has protected the nation’s biodiversity and taught Cubans valuable lessons on recycling and reusing.
Our trips have always tapped into Cuba’s love of frugal innovation and have always been a great choice for those who want to travel sustainably.
We’ve now gone one step further.
Carbon foot-printing measures
Working with ecollectivetravel, we have measured every single aspect of our business and the trips we offer. We can now offer an accurate measurement of just how sustainable our trips are. We aim to reduce our emissions by 8% every year and welcome any fresh ideas and suggestions from those of you who have already started your journey towards carbon neutrality.
Finally, we have just joined Tourism Declares . A group of like-minded travel professionals who share the common goal of reducing our emissions, aiming for carbon neutrality and helping others do the same. We will be looking for local environmental projects to support once Cuba reopens for business and will let you know how we progress on a regular basis.
If you would like us to look at how we can reduce the footprint of your trip in Cuba, please get in touch with me and we can discuss further. You can also keep up to date with our news by following us on our social media pages ( you know how! Just click on the relevant icons at the bottom of this article )
Changes to The Cuban Economy 🏦💲
The CUC disappears, replaced by USD
In January 2021 the Cuban Government started to abolish the dual currency system in Cuba, when it was announced that the CUC would be phased out over the first 6 months of the year. The Cuban Convertible Peso ( CUC ) has disappeared out of circulation and will cease to be legal tender on 30th June 2021. The sole domestic currency will be the Cuban Peso ( CUP ) which will be used for all cash payments on the island. As if the pandemic wasn’t challenge enough!
The official rate of exchange is USD1:CUP24 but a high demand for USD in Cuba has forced the black market exchange rate to USD1:CUP50-60 as the country adjusts to the new economic status quo.
This period of inflation means that many goods have become really expensive for Cubans. The only shops selling imported food and goods now only sell these goods in USD. All payments in USD shops must be made digitally, either with foreign debit/credit cards or with local payment cards. Most Cubans do not have regular access to USD so, even though the shelves are quite well stocked, the vast majority of Cubans do not have the means to buy in these shops.
In a country already straining to make ends because of the pandemic, the introduction of digital payment cards seems badly timed and has caused anger and frustration on Social Media pages.
Private sector businesses legalised
To mitigate some of the economic pain, the Cuban Government has recently approved a reform that legalises the private sector businesses in Cuba. This is a massive step for one of the last managed economies in the world – a system which is synonymous with state ownership – and the Government has been loathe to formalize legislation for private businesses or encourage growth beyond small “mom and pop” style businesses such as casas particulares and paladares. There is no doubt that we are witnessing a painfully slow but inexorable change to the economy in Cuba as it edges cautiously away from pure socialism.
Digitalisation of the Economy
The most recent change to money matters occurred in early June 2021 when the government announced that , as of 21st June 2021, it would no longer be possible to deposit USD in cash to Cuban bank accounts. The US Embargo on Cuba makes it impossible for the BCC ( Banco Central de Cuba ) to deposit the cash directly to a US bank and intermediary banks are heavily penalized by the US Treasury if they make transactions with Cuba.
Any travellers to Cuba should make sure to bring either EUR, GBP or CAD as well as bank cards to make payments in shops which only accept payments electronically.
The irony is that, just as the USD has become more important than ever in Cuba, its use has been severely curtailed. There’s no doubt that ordinary Cubans are angry and aggrieved by the additional pressure of this measure.
Economic reforms that had been planned well before the pandemic, have been pushed through in spite of the further economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.
Cubans watch and hope that the vaccination programme will be successful so that the economy, so dependent on tourism, can restart.
The Neighbour to the North 🇺🇸 vs 🇨🇺
There haven’t been any changes to US-Cuba travel restrictions since Biden took power in the White House. Understandably, Biden has had larger fish to fry than sorting out their dysfunctional relationship with Cuba. In fact, one of the last Executive orders signed by Trump before leaving the White House further rolled back the advances made by Obama.
Given that geopolitical focus seems to have shifted away from Cuba, it seems unlikely that the USA will provide further rapprochement.
And since the US hasn’t made any changes to policy, Cuba does seem to be softening their approach towards visiting US citizens.
Changes to Cuban approach towards US visitors
Cuban Immigrations has always welcomed individuals travelling on US passports. WAs if the pandemic wasn’t challenge enoughhereas previously all US citizens travelling in any group had to be declared to authorities prior to travel, they can now join mixed nationality groups, as a matter of course.
The US Embargo on Cuba forbids travel to Cuba for tourism for US Citizens and for anyone travelling to Cuba from the USA. Even today travellers to Cuba from the USA have to comply with a strict set of US Treasury Regulations. Cuba countered this by applying their own “penalties” and regulations to US groups – higher costs, more restrictions, less freedom to move around the country. These Cuban imposed “penalties” have now been dropped.
This may not seem like big news at all, but it means that US citizens are no longer limited to travelling with US Treasury approved groups, so long as they are prepared to enter Cuba via a third country.
If you’ve managed to get all the way to the bottom of this blog, congratulations! You deserve some good news, so here goes…
Not 1 but 2 Cubania babies are due this summer!
STOP PRESS: Carla has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl! Mother and baby doing well. Welcome to the world Victoria! 👼🏼
Adam’s wife, Barbara, is due in August! We’ll keep you posted and share photos if we can!
The past year or so has been a long hill to climb for everyone . But Cubania is still here. We are longing to get back to what we do best – take you on amazing and life-changing trips to Cuba. Living and working in Cuba has given us a double dose of patience and perseverance. We have been resilient, inventive and positive during dark months.
All of the Cubania Team looks forward to seeing you in Cuba soon!