Record numbers of visitors have been racing to get to Cuba ‘before it changes forever’ since President Obama’s historic announcement in December 2014 that diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba were to be restored.
Since then the relationship has continued to warm, but there has been more speculation than tangible change as a result – though significant developments have included the re-opening of embassies in both countries, Airbnb’s entry into the Cuban market and a broader, more flexible set of rules governing US visitors to Cuba. Whilst US visitor numbers are up they still accounted for little more than 150,000 of the more than 3.3 million international arrivals in 2015.
Though change has been in the air for some time now – much of it the result of new domestic policies – the really transformative changes may well take place in the coming year.
This might well be a truly momentous year for Cuba – and though fears that McRice and Beans will soon be appearing on menus around Havana may be unfounded panic, the Cuban Government unlikely to embrace capitalist changes to that extent in the foreseeable future, by the end of 2016 Cuba really could look quite different to how it looked at the start.
Here are a few new and exciting things happening in Cuba this year.
1. The capital’s dining scene will continue to break new ground
Cuba, but more precisely and strikingly Havana, is rapidly shaking off its out-of-date reputation for bad food. Its increasing kudos in foodie circles is sure to take another step forward this year when internationally-renowned chefs Massimo Bottura, Enrique Olvera and Andoni Luis Aduriz open a restaurant in the Cuban capital. Said to be called ‘Pasta, Tapas y Tacos’, after the national cuisines of their respective homelands. With a new restaurant opening seemingly every week and a swathe of exciting openings last year, this year could see Havana break free from that old reputation once and for all.
2. Ritmo Cuba salsa festival
Dance schools have popped up all over the island since the laws governing private enterprise in Cuba were relaxed five years ago. The most ambitious project to have emerged from this new wave of businesses is Ritmo Cuba, an international salsa festival to take place from 18–24 April 2016.
Drawing on the expertise of a whole host of Cuba’s most renowned dance teachers, the festival is a packed week of workshops, dance classes and shows, guided tours and dance parties suitable for everyone from beginners to experienced salseros.
3. New tours and operators
The current ceaseless demand for travel to Cuba has seen new organised tours popping up left, right and centre, many offered by US agents who can provide itineraries that meet one or more of the twelve criteria set out by the US Government for any of its citizens travelling to Cuba.
Among the newest of these so called ‘people-to-people’ tours is insightCuba’s four-night Weekend in Santiago de Cuba Tour, with an emphasis on music and the history of the Cuban Revolution, launching in January and already selling out fast.
Central Holidays’ ten-day, themed Afro Cubanismo tour, visits Havana, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba, and Coda International Tours’ introduce what they bill as “the only all-gay trip to ‘Unexplored Cuba’”.
Luxury travel agent Abercrombie & Kent is amongst the operators visiting Cuba for the first time this year whilst at the other end of the scale, Cuban-based Havana Supertours add the Mob Tour to their original and diverse set of day trips around the capital, tracing the history of the Mafia in pre-revolutionary Havana with transportation, as with their other tours, in a classic 1950s American car.
4. Gran Teatro reopens
The Gran Teatro, one of Havana’s most magnificently ornate buildings, home to the Cuban National Ballet, reopens to the public on January 3 after several years of closure. Now known as the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso, this cathedral of dance has been meticulously restored and is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in Habana Vieja. See it at night when its shining regal exterior, which has been cleaned so thoroughly you’d think it had only just been built, is now captivatingly lit and the new jewel in the Parque Central crown sparkles above you.
5. Cruise liner companies launch Cuba itineraries
Cruise ships have been a rare sight in Cuban harbours over the last five decades but in 2016 they are set to become a regular feature in the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
Cyprus-based Celestyal Cruises have been sailing their 1200-passenger Celestyal Crystal on seven-day circuits around the island since last December, whilst Italian-owned MSC Cruises has become the first major cruise ship company to use Cuba as a starting point for cruises, operating from the Cuban capital until 12 April this year.
The world’s largest cruise line, Carnival, an American company, will join in in Spring 2016 when it commences sailing to Cuba for the first time – though technically, according to US law, the ship’s passengers will not be permitted to sunbathe on the beach as this does not qualify as an activity which supports the Cuban people.
6. Manana music festival
Manana 2016 is the first ever international electronic music festival on Cuban soil, taking place in May (4–6) in Santiago de Cuba. The brainchild of Londoners Harry Follett, Jenner del Vecchio and Cuban musical artist Alain Garcia Artola, the festival will feature an unprecedented mixture of mostly UK, US and Cuban-based musical talent.
There will be boundary-breaking collaborations between Cuban musicians of various musical genres and foreign electronic artists. Among the confirmed performers are British-born electronic and Latin music DJ and producer Quantic, UK dubstep pioneer Mala, and Cuban rumba innovators Obba Tuke.
7. New ferries and flights from US
Cuba and the US might have seemed like a world apart for most Americans over the last fifty years or so but there has been just 90 miles between them the whole time. For travellers from the US it should become startlingly apparent over the next twelve months just how close Cuba is, with three-hour ferry services from Florida to Havana likely towards the end of the year, and scheduled commercial flights for the first time in over half a century due even sooner.
Catching a direct flight between the US and Cuba currently means booking a relatively expensive and often complicated charter flight, but, after an agreement reached between the two countries in December last year, American Airlines, JetBlue and United Airlines are set to be amongst the carriers ready to operate a total of more than twelve flights daily from the US to Cuban airports.
8. Rock legends in concert
Listening to Western pop and rock stars in the first couple of decades after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was considered anti-revolutionary and became an underground activity. So whilst there have been occasional performances from left-leaning rock groups like the Manic Street Preachers and Audioslave over the last twenty years, there is a greater significance, in some respects, to the performances said and set to take place in 2016 by Sting, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones.
9. Hay Literary Festival comes to Cuba
It’s a long way from South Wales to Cuba and the cultural gap is perhaps even wider, but the organisers of the Hay Festival are planning to demonstrate again this year that good literature bridges divides.
Having already launched in Spain, Peru, Colombia and Mexico, the literary festival comes to Cuba on January 25 and 26. Attendees will include Jon Lee Anderson, American reporter who wrote the definitive English-language biography of Che Guevara, esteemed Mexican author Guadalupe Nettel and English novelist Hanif Kureishi. Cuban writers at the event will include Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, author of Dirty Havana Trilogy, one of the most internationally successful Cuban novels of the last twenty years, alongside Antón Arrufat, Mirta Yáñez, Reynaldo González, Marilyn Bobes, Dazra Novak and Rafael Grillo.
10. New luxury at Hotel Manzana de Gomez
They can’t build hotels quick enough to meet the rising demand for visitor accommodation and a slew of new hotels around the island is due in the next year. The highest profile of these is the Hotel Manzana de Gomez on Havana’s increasingly splendid Parque Central, right in the epicentre of the changing capital and due to open in late 2016.
When it does open, this grandiose five-floor, 246-room neoclassical landmark, occupying an entire block and with a rooftop pool, will be one of the largest in the old city and transform the eastern side of the square, bringing back to life an imposing edifice which stood largely derelict and decrepit for much of the last decade and whose alluring street-level commercial galleries, cutting diagonally through the building’s belly, will provide some new public spaces too.