The skyline of Havana, the capital and largest city of Cuba.

The skyline of Havana, Cuba’s capital city, the gateway to visiting the island. Many tourism professionals believe that Cuba will again be one of the leading international destinations for Americans. Photo from Pixabay.

Want to enjoy a tropical paradise at a low cost? Consider Cuba. For nearly 60 years, Americans have been unable to visit the Caribbean island only 90 miles from Florida due to an embargo that grew out of Cold War tensions with the Fidel Castro regime. Under President Barack Obama, improved relations with the former adversary are making Cuba an up-and-coming tourist destination.

Cuba commands the curiosity of millions of Americans. What is life like on the island of 11 million people that has been off-limits for more than a half century? What is it like to explore the centuries-old Spanish fortresses, sandy beaches and iconic downtowns of the Havana area?

Thanks to improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba under the leadership of the Obama Administration, visiting the tropical island that is only 90 miles from Florida at its closest point is now a real winter or spring break option. It also means that the population, which subsists on an average personal salary of $20 per month, can benefit through Western tourism dollars and the expansion of the hospitality, food services, transportation, communications and retail industries.

Best of all for tourists, it is a low-cost way to explore the Caribbean. According to Budget Your Trip, visitors can expect to spend about $45 per day on the island, including hotel accommodations averaging $24.62 per night. While some restrictions remain, Americans can go independently if they maintain that their trip is for educational purposes.

A Look Back at Cuba’s Las Vegas Past

Older adults will remember that Cuba was once a vacation playground for Americans and other Westerners, in the same vein as Las Vegas and Atlantic City today. Between 1915 and 1930, Cuba hosted more tourists than any other island in the Caribbean, owing to its proximity to the U.S. mainland and strong business ties with American businesspeople. Prohibition in the U.S. added an extra incentive to visit the island, since alcohol and other banned pastimes were easily available.

An antique car parked on the roadside in the mountains of Cuba.

Among the many classic American cars that still travel the streets of Cuba. Many islanders still drive cars purchased before the embargo that began in 1961. Photo from Pixabay.

Cuba’s tourist industry declined during the Great Depression and World War II but expanded again in the 1950s, as organized crime developed the island into a “sin city” with narcotics, gambling and prostitution among the attractions. Cuban-Americans in Hollywood, such as Desi Arnaz of the I Love Lucy show, familiarized Americans with a somewhat caricatured view of the people and culture of their island neighbor.

In 1959, Cuba’s relations with the U.S. began to deteriorate as leftist Fidel Castro came to power and soon had the support of the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War archenemy. By 1961, an embargo had been put in place, prohibiting trade and tourism with Cuba. The situation reached its lowest point in 1962, when revelations of Soviet missile installations in Cuba, apparently aimed at the U.S., brought the world’s superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.

The Reopening of Cuba

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 cut off the Castro Regime from its primary source of foreign aid, which was a major blow to the island’s economy. Thus, for the past quarter century, Cuban officials have been working to develop alternative income sources.

While American visitation to the island was banned until the recent Obama Administration policies, Cuba has been a destination for visitors from Canada, Europe and elsewhere in Latin America for several years. Additionally, a number of Americans have visited illegally, usually accessing the island through Mexico.

In December 2015, U.S. airlines were cleared to begin regularly-scheduled flights to the island. This year, cruise lines began visiting Cuba.

Hoping for Economic Transformation

Cuba received a record 3.5 million visitors in 2015, though only 161,000 arrivals were Americans, since the travel ban was still largely in place at that time. These figures are expected to rise substantially this year, as the island is now much more accessible.

There is some concern that the island may not be able to cope with the onslaught of tourists, at least initially, as there are only 63,000 hotel rooms on the island and limited infrastructure. Yet the island is likely to establish itself quickly, as major hotel chains, led by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, are planning operations in Havana and elsewhere on the island.

Currently, 440,000 Cubans work in tourism-supported jobs, making up 8.6% of the labor force. These figures are sure to rise, though how much – or how quickly – remains to be seen.

A map of the island of Cuba and nearby island chains.

Cuba is much larger than many Americans believe. From east to west, it is 780 miles long. That is greater than the length of California. Map from Wikipedia.

Your Guide to Cuba

So what should you see if you decide to pack up and travel to Cuba?

Havana, the capital city of 2.1 million people, is the natural place to start. The city is known for its Spanish Colonial vibe and there are a number of historic sites, including the maritime museum Castillo de la Real Fuerza, El Morro Castle, the shops and restaurants of the city’s Old Town and the nation’s iconic capitol building. Listen to Cuban music, enjoy the food and dancing, and marvel at the collection of classic 1950s cars, left over from before Castro’s rule.

Yet Cuba is a large island – 780 miles long and 119 miles at its widest point – with diverse tropical scenery, including mountains that are more than 6,000 feet tall. The island’s highest mountain, Pico Turquino, is a challenging hike. Temperatures are as much as 20°F cooler at the peak, offering a sharp contrast to the hot humid temperatures of the lowlands in summer.

Cuba has more than 3,500 miles of coastline and there are beaches to fit a variety of tastes, including secluded beaches, the well-traveled getaways around Havana and tropical sands of interest to nature-lovers. The International Business Times provides this report on some of the island’s best beaches.

As for when to go, the optimum season is November to April, when humidity is low, temperatures are warm but comfortable and most days are sunny. Summers are not only hot and wet, but they also bring the threat of hurricanes.

For more on visiting Cuba, visit the island’s official tourism site.

Cal State Fullerton and Cuba

Cal State Fullerton has been involved in the improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The university launched an exchange program with the University of Havana in 2015, after faculty and students from the Havana school visited campus in 2014.

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