4 Things to Know Before Visiting Cuba

In late July, as reported by The New York Times, the U.S. and Cuba took a big step toward the normalization of diplomatic relations: the simultaneous openings of full-fledged embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C.

Cuba remains politically controversial in some circles, and the diplomatic exchange certainly wasn’t met with universal praise. But regardless of your personal feelings on Cuba-U.S. relations, says Cuban-born educator Marti Diaz, it’s clear that the corner has been turned. Barring some unforeseen occurrence, Cuba and the United States are likely to enjoy completely normalized relations by the end of the 2010s.

Practically speaking, this means that Cuba will soon be a viable tourist destination for the first time in most Americans’ living memories. No more embargoes, no more routing flights through a third country, no more “special privileges” visas.

If you’re hoping to take advantage of the newly warm relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and travel to the Caribbean’s largest island, keep these four things in mind.

  1. It Has Been Legal for Foreign Nationals to Visit Cuba for Decades

It’s worth noting that Cuba has been completely open to foreign tourists since the late 1990s, when the disastrous, no-contact “Special Period” ended. (During the Special Period, visitors were barred from interacting directly with Cuban nationals.) In fact, Cuba is currently the third most-popular Caribbean destination for international tourists, many of whom flock from the European Union.

  1. Medical Tourism Is Popular in Cuba

When you think of the Caribbean, you probably think tropical breezes and sandy beaches. Cuba has plenty of both. But it also has a highly developed medical sector that manages to deliver affordable, reasonably high-quality care. While that’s not as much of an issue for folks who live in countries with socialized or low-cost healthcare systems, it’s definitely important for wealthy developing-world residents who can’t get adequate care in their home countries.

  1. It’s Easier to Visit If You Have Cuban Relatives

If you’re a U.S. resident of Cuban descent, or you’re related by marriage to a Cuban national, it’s much easier for you to secure U.S. government approval to travel to Cuba. This advantage is likely to fade as it becomes easier to travel to Cuba on a whim, but it remains in force today.

  1. You May Still Struggle to Find a Direct Flight

It’s unclear when regularly scheduled commercial flights between major U.S. and Cuban cities will resume. For now, most people who want to travel to Cuba and aren’t able to charter a plane need to arrange to travel through a third country, such as Canada or Mexico. Keep in mind that this is technically illegal if you don’t have clearance from the U.S. government, though enforcement is relatively lax and is likely to be de-prioritized now that relations between the two countries are warmer. Still, it’s likely to add considerable cost and time to your trip.

Are you planning to visit Cuba in the near future? What sights are you most looking forward to?

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