What Travel Writers Say

Cuban Tourism

© By Mike Keenan
  Sitting by Gate C-27 in Toronto's International Airport, the plane arrives that will ferry me to Cuba for the first time. At the exit ramp, I notice behaviour that automatically distances Cuba from North America. Cuban Airline staff, pilot, co-pilot, stewards, and stewardesses exhibit broad smiles and wave grand hellos to the fresh crew waiting to embark. No downcast eyes, sullen faces or anxiety to rush away, cell phone in hand. They stop, establish eye contact and initiate toothy grins. This bodes well. I am heading to a happy country. When I get there, and people ask where I'm from, upon hearing the response, the first word that they utter is "amigo" or friend.
     The arrival is not without inconvenience. A stewardess announces policy that they fumigate the plane, and sprays some elixir that is not well received. Fumigate means kill, doesn't it? A better verb choice next time. At Varadero International Airport, I pretend I'm James Bond with Ursula Andress, carefully processed by Dr. No in that lovely scene when Bond and his gorgeous girlfriend are scrubbed thoroughly to eradicate radioactive contamination.
     Cuba is the largest island in the Antilles, two-thirds the size of Florida, where many ex-pats live, particularly in Miami, having fled or been exiled by the Castro regime. It's also an intricate archipelago consisting of the Isle of Youth and about 4,195 keys and islets. Only 180 kilometers from Florida, it's strategically located at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
     I'm one of many journalists, from as far away as Russia, Japan and Australia, travelling aboard Chinese-made busses running through most of Cuba's 14 provinces. We avoid the infamous Guantánamo where George Bush implemented a Machiavellian penal colony for alleged terrorists, languishing there for years without due process, and thanks to Stephen Harper, as of this writing, one young Canadian, Omar Khadr, an alleged child-soldier, still remains.
     It's The International Tourism Fair, the most important event in the Cuban tourism industry's calendar to promote Cuba as a tourist destination, an important goal now that tourism is the country's main industry with sugar derived from thick, heavy cane, slipping to number two. We travel efficiently in the four-bus cavalcade with motorcycle cops leading the way, my first impersonation of a VIP. I empathize for Cuban drivers rudely forced off the two-lane road so we can speed ahead, unimpeded.
     I observe an amazing custom. Everywhere, I see queues of people lined up along the roads, day and night. When vehicles pass, they extend their arms. Vehicles that are not full are required to stop and pick up those whom they can. Apparently, the option is to extract a fare or not, enforced by a visible police force on all roads. What a great public transit idea! And here, one feels quite safe. Chalk one up for the socialist government.
     Cuba has one-third of Canada's population, a little more than 11,200,000 people, 75 per cent living in urban communities. We visit the biggest: Havana (2,198,000), Santiago de Cuba (1,023,000) and Holguín (1,021,000), and I gleefully discover that my high school Spanish complimented by a well-educated Cuban populace (95.7 literacy rate) makes communication easy.
     We are treated to "Heritage Cities" that offer a fascinating array of architectural styles dating back 500 years to the colonial period. Some are laid out in mathematical symmetry; others are a labyrinth. Huge fortresses with perfunctory cannon greet visitors by sea; columns, balconies, arches and balustrades make every building a photo opportunity. I fill an 8-meg card!

Cienfuegos  Ciuda de Baracoa  Ciuda de Baracoa  Havana  Havana  Havana 

Iglesia de Baracoa  Cienfuegos Street Scene  Cienfuegos Street Scene  Cienfuegos Street Scene  Remedios Street Scene  Remedios Street Scene 

Remedios Street Scene  Remedios Street Scene  Santa Clara Street Scene  Santa Clara Street Scene  Santa Clara Street Scene  Santa Clara Street Scene 

     Havana, founded November 16, 1519, is capital of the Republic of Cuba. Nearby Matanzas, "the Athens of Cuba," and "the city of bridges," has a rich cultural heritage with many important figures in music and the arts born here. Further east, Villa Clara Province embodies two heritage cities: Santa Clara, with its imposing Ernesto Che Guevara Monument, and Remedios, a city I would come to love, so friendly was its people. Cienfuegos, founded in 1819, known as "the pearl of the south," is an architectural treasure, exhibiting a marked French influence. Trinidad, Cuba's museum-city, was founded in 1514, and is centre of a considerable handicrafts tradition. Camagüey, founded in 1515 offers inviting public squares, churches and streets begging to be explored. Bayamo, founded in 1513, is the capital of Granma Province, rich in tradition and history, and where Cuba's National Anthem was first sung. Santiago de Cuba exhibits the most pronounced Caribbean atmosphere, a happy, carefree joie de vivre. Founded in 1515, it was Cuba's first capital. All of the above heritage cities enjoy a nucleus or fortifications deemed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
     One other, Baracoa, the first Spanish settlement in Cuba, was founded in 1511. The Parra Cross, which dates from that beginning, is the only surviving cross of the 29 that Christopher Columbus brought to the New World, preserved in the museum.
     Under Castro's government, aside from the U.S.A., Cuba's International Economic Association has spurred the rapid advancement of tourism, placing it in high gear primarily from "joint ventures," established by law in 1995. This involves co-development of hotels, golf courses, recreational parks and marinas. Many hotel groups operate in Cuba: Cubanacán, Gaviota, Gran Caribe, Islazul, Habagüanex, Sol Meliá, Iberostar, NH Hoteles, Barceló, Occidental, Accor, Blau, Hoteles C, Sandals, Super Clubs, Sirenis, Globalia, Hotetur and Hotel PLANTA. Thirteen international hotel groups signed contracts for administration of 47,500 rooms in 319 new hotels, management already working at 62 hotels offering 24,167 rooms; American capitalistic conglomerates drool to not be part of the action. The current tourism market is led by Canada, followed by the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Germany and France. Cuba boasts three cruise terminals and 10 international marinas. One hopes Cuba can maintain the momentum.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

If you go
as seen on
Cuba Tourist Board: http://www.gocuba.ca/en/index.asp

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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