havana / AFP
American Sue Pemberton rushed to Havana to experience authentic Cuba before the communist island gets swamped by capitalism. The only problem: millions of other foreigners had exactly the same idea.
Already booming tourism is set to explode in the wake of President Barack Obamaâ€™s visit to Havana on Sunday, when heâ€™ll bury an almost six decades-long conflict that left Cuba the last major undeveloped market in the Caribbean. So Pemberton, 63, joined a tour to â€œsee it before it changes.â€
â€œI assume in a few years thereâ€™ll be a Starbucks and the McDonaldâ€™s and Subway & all the chains,â€ she said, while waiting outside the cathedral, set in a stunning square in old Havana.
Visitors flock to see Havanaâ€™s crumbling, picturesque streets, ride in pre-1960s American convertibles, and listen to street musicians playing romantic songs about Fidel Castroâ€™s 1959 revolution. But the more they come to see a country seemingly stuck in time, the more the country changes.
â€œFor me the attraction was getting here before everyone,â€ said Evan Ingardia, 30, a student at the University of Washington business school, standing with two friends near a dream-like line of pink and purple open-top Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in the city center.
Yet he was aware they were probably already too late. â€œItâ€™s starting to wander between whatâ€™s authentic and whatâ€™s bordering on fake.â€
Floodgates crack open
Tourism dominated by Canadians and Europeans is nothing new. But the game changer was last yearâ€™s restoration of US-Cuban diplomatic relations, raising the eventual prospect of unrestricted travel from a country of 323 million barely an hourâ€™s flight away.
Last Tuesday, the Obama administration tore another hole in the already tattered US economic embargo by telling Americans they can now travel to Cuba as individuals, not just as part of approved organizations.
They are still officially not tourists and have to come under one of 12 categories, such as educational activity, but the rules are now almost unenforceable. Of the 3.5 million tourists to Cuba in 2015, only 161,000 were Americans. However, this was 77 percent up on the previous year and Americans are now expected to be a major component in a growth spurt taking overall numbers to 6.8 million in 2018.
Nostalgia? No thanks
The commercialization of old Havana and other Cuban attractions may disappoint tourists searching for retro-revolutionary chic.
But Cubans themselves are utterly un-nostalgic, thinking only of a chance to escape their stifling existence in a broken-down communist economy.
â€œIt was an era that led to a dead end, so itâ€™s good that itâ€™s changing,â€ said Fulgencio Verderas Dias, an 80-year-old guitarist busking in a touristy street.
Yaset Martin, 30, an artist selling paintings nearby, said that â€œdeveloping, not standing still,â€ is what matters.
Perfectly illustrating Cubaâ€™s drift from its revolutionary past, Martinâ€™s offerings included the inevitable portraits of revolutionary icon Che Guevara — but only because they are tourists bait, rather than for ideological reasons.
â€œI donâ€™t know the past,â€ the artist said. â€œI live in the present.â€
Sense of national identity
Cuba does not have the infrastructure to handle mass tourism.
Some also fear unpreparedness for the darker kind of problems â€” ranging from overbearing corporations to social ills like income inequality, crime and drugs â€” that Cubans have previously kept largely at bay.
â€œBy the time you get big business concerns and the hotels, I think youâ€™re going to see a very different Cuba emerging,â€ said Nancy Roberts, a professor specializing in strategic planning at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, who was working with university colleagues in Havana.
â€œThereâ€™s something special and unique about this place and is anyone thinking about that?â€
Most Cubans are overwhelmingly bullish, noting their countryâ€™s unusually high educational levels and strong sense of national identity.