If you’re a normal human being who enjoys warmth and beautiful beaches and experiencing new cultures, you’re probably pretty intrigued by the idea of visiting Cuba.
There’s been a record number of American visitors to Cuba in the last couple years ever since the US eased travel restrictions (although you’ll still need to prove you’re visiting for one of 12 pre-approved reasons, and get a tourist visa beforehand).
So, it’s easy to understand the appeal of Cuba. For many of us, it’s been uncharted territory our whole lives.
We see the Instagrams our fellow travelers post, posing by slightly crumbling but quaint buildings and smiling enthusiastically in front of the old-timey cars, and at first, it looks pretty damn charming.
But then, the unease slowly sinks in — those adorable old-timey cars are only there because the people literally can’t get any other cars thanks to embargoes and restrictions.
So visiting Cuba is morally tricky. On one hand, you’re supporting the local economy with cash.
Alfredo, the operator of Cuba Road Trip, a Cuban tour option that promotes ethical travel, pointed out the rise in tourism is giving Cubans the opportunity to empower themselves economically like never before
But of course, there’s a downside, too. Consider the recent food shortage that’s happening with the tourism spike. As the New York Times explained, the US embargo and bad government planning have seen a drastic food shortage caused by the millions of tourists, with locals unable to afford to eat.
The good news is, it’s possible to get the vacation of your dreams and travel to Cuba in a way that won’t leave you feeling like a human trash bag. You don’t have to hurt the people kind enough to host you — there are some ways to travel in a way that truly helps them.
Stay in Airbnbs and Casa Particulares
One major way to benefit the Cuban people when you travel is to skip the hotel and stay directly in a local’s house. Before hunting for an Instagram-worthy Airbnb was a vacation ritual, the Cubans opened up their homes to visitors.
These casa particulares are a way for the Cuban people to directly profit off tourists.
You can select a casa particulare or an Airbnb, but either way, consider avoiding the state-run hotels and all-inclusive resorts in favor of a home that’ll actually benefit the Cuban people and bring cash to those who need it.
You’re not just visiting another country to see the sights — you’re also going to interact with a completely different culture. This is particularly vital when traveling to a country like Cuba.
By forming these relationships, you can have a real impact on Cuban people. You can hear actual stories about their lives and learn firsthand what Cuba is actually all about.
By just skimming the TripAdvisor highlights and hanging out with other clueless tourists, you miss that valuable insight, and you miss making a once-in-a-lifetime connection.
Pull out your Duolingo app before you go and brush up on your Spanish, so you’re able to communicate directly with the people.
Alfredo pointed out many tourists visit and want to take a salsa class or visit the Rum Museum, and while that can be fun, you’re not going to actually meet Cuban people there.
Going to overpriced tourist traps is going to limit the exposure you have to Cubans, as most of them are unable to afford these things — the cost ensures they’re strictly for foreigners.
Instead, Alfredo suggested: “Buy a $7 bottle of rum… walk along the Malecón… it’s this long, popular wall where all the kids hang out … and I guarantee you’ll have the best night of your life. All for $7″.
Yeah, drinking cheap alcohol with new friends sounds exponentially better than awkwardly salsa dancing in a room full of ungainly tourists to me, too.
Learn and Respect Local Customs
Respect is key when you travel anywhere, and part of that is doing the research beforehand. Sarah Faith, the marketing manager for Responsible Travel, a company focused on helping globe-trotters travel ethically, told Elite Daily : “We believe that travelling with respect earns respect, and that if you treat local people and places well then you are more likely to get a chance to get closer to local culture, wildlife and landscapes… small things like learning a few words of Spanish before you travel, and reading up about local customs and etiquette. It is also worth researching a little into the history of Cuba before you visit”.
When you know a little Spanish and you know a little bit of the Cuban history, you’ll be better able to see the country, speak directly with locals and make informed decisions on where to spend your dollars.
By researching, you can ensure you’re not that obnoxious American requesting “Lágrimas Negras” and “Chan Chan” over and over again.
Work With Responsible Tour Operators
When you go, make sure you research the tour groups you plan on using to ensure they employ ethical practices themselves.
Find groups that bring you to off-the-beaten-path attractions, allow you to interact with Cubans and patronize private enterprise.
It’s totally possible to travel to Cuba and have an amazing time you don’t have to feel guilty about. As Sarah says: “Done well, responsible tourism in Cuba has the potential to support local people and provide a sustainable source of additional income – so if you are keen to immerse yourself in Cuban culture, travel in a way that supports local people and protects local environments then we’d wholeheartedly recommend you visit. Just be aware that this is a country where tourism is in its infancy – and we all have a responsibility to make sure that it develops in a way that is respectful and beneficial for Cuban people”.