Question: I'm interested in going to Cuba soon but information is not easy to come by and some of it is conflicting. I know I can go, but should I go now or wait?
Ruth Kramer Ziony
Answer: When to go depends on who you are as a traveler.
The easing of Cuba travel restrictions this month has created a frenzy of interest in going — and with it, misunderstandings about what you can and can't do.
For instance, new Treasury Department regulations say, "Travelers will now be allowed to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba."
Note that the Treasury statement says this "will now be allowed." That's not the same as "You can do this right now." Infrastructure and financial agreements are not yet in place, and "navigating the financial landscape between the U.S.A. and Cuba is complicated," said Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons in Long Beach, which has sent groups to Cuba for years.
Joe Diaz, co-founder of Afar Media, which also publishes Afar magazine, went to Cuba on Jan. 17, almost immediately after the announcement of the easing of restrictions. "My credit cards did not work," he said. Nor did his debit cards. "We did everything in cash," he said. "We brought a lot of cash."
Another issue, Moore noted: "There are two currencies in Cuba — for Americans and other visitors. The use of CUCs [Cuban Convertible Pesos] is mandatory for visitors to Cuba. The CUC is supposed to be on par with the dollar but, in practice, anyone changing dollars into CUCs faces a 10% penalty levied as a punishment to Americans.... Then there is a 3% currency transaction fee. Bottom line: For $100 you get 87 CUCs."
Cuba as a travel destination is, in Diaz's words, "raw." The Cuba of today is for about 5% of travelers, he said — the most adventurous ones.
Going now means you'll see the mostly unspoiled, un-Starbucksed country. Cuba is not unfamiliar with tourists. Winter-weary Europeans and Canadians, among others, have been visiting for years because they are unfettered by U.S. restrictions, but the number of rooms is limited, never mind the quality of those accommodations.
Michael Boyd, president of Colorado-based aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, shared his group's report, "Cuba: What Next?," that detailed some of the opportunities and problems associated with the easing of restrictions.
"Yes, there is investment in new resorts and hotels in Cuba," the report said. "But it is carefully controlled. The problem is assuring that there's enough soap for the bathrooms once they are built."
Be clear that Cuba isn't Club Carib. You won't have consistent Wi-Fi, if at all. Your cellphone may not work. If you're taking a bike trip in the countryside, you may have to carry your provisions because stores will be scarce as will the commodities.
You still will have to fit into one of 12 categories for your visit, the Treasury Department says, although it's unclear how this will be enforced. Among the categories: family travel, religious or educational activities and, most curiously, "support for the Cuban people," which could be almost anything. Enforcement of these categories or stipulations is apparently on the honor system. That always works well.
The regulations say you're supposed to be engaging in activities, not just lying on the beach. It's not clear whether there are "no-lying-on-the-beach" police on either the U.S. or Cuban side, but for now, I'd be careful about coming back with a tan.
Be careful, too, about coming back with too much booze or too many cigars. You're limited to $100 total for both, and don't think for a minute about reselling either.
Although U.S. airlines have expressed interest in serving Cuba, for now you'll probably be on a charter from the U.S. or go through other countries. (Diaz went through Panama.) Again, no magic wand will be waved that changes things overnight.
Whether you go to Cuba now or you wait reminds me a bit of when China was opening to tourism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Travelers who went first got to see a country that was free of the influences that can overwhelm the soul and spirit of a place. But they also encountered inconveniences and inconsistencies that make travel tricky and irritating. And, in the case of Cuba, you are supposed to comply with regulations even though the penalties for not doing so aren't spelled out — just like a whole lot of other things.
Cuba, Moore said, "is probably one of the hardest countries we work in but we have it down now." If you don't know the ropes or you aren't one of those 5% Diaz mentioned, your first trip might best be with a group, just as some of those first-time visitors to China let pros navigate the quirks and the conundrums.
Take your travel temperature and then decide whether independent travel right now is just what the doctor ordered.