After a Pandemic Implosion, Tourism Returns to Cuba

In the real Havana, as opposed to the restored and polished Habana Vieja, people are struggling more than at any other point since the 1959 revolution.

Scott Norvell/The New York Sun
Tourists hire photographers to document their excursions in Havana's famous fleet of 1950s American cars. Scott Norvell/The New York Sun

HAVANA — After disappearing entirely during the Covid pandemic, tourists are slowly beginning to refill the 16th-century colonial quarter of this time capsule of a city.

Influencers in round sunglasses and straw hats parade around speaking to smartphones at the ends of their outstretched arms. They hire photographers to follow them as they cruise down the seaside Malecón in miraculously maintained 1950s American convertibles. They sit under umbrellas in restored plazas sipping cafecitos that cost about as much as the average Cuban earns in half a week.

They rarely, however, seem to venture a few blocks west into the real Havana. In the real Havana, as opposed to the restored and polished Habana Vieja, people are struggling more than at any other point since the 1959 revolution, more even than during the so-called Special Period of the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the flow of subsidies from Moscow.


Garbage is piled up around the blue dumpsters on every other corner in the real Havana. An elderly man sweeping the streets says trucks haven’t been by to collect it in weeks. The diesel fuel they need to operate has been diverted to power plants to try to curtail the rolling blackouts that have plagued the country for months.

Far from the gussied-up tourist areas of Central Havana, life is very different for the average Cubans.
Scott Norvell/The New York Sun

Lines form early outside the few state-owned stores stocked with necessities. The allotted ration for each family from the bakeries amounts to six or seven warm buns. A month’s ration of rice rarely lasts beyond a few days for the average family. Pork, a staple of the Cuban diet, is rarely available, and basic hygiene products like toothpaste, toilet paper, and deodorant are nowhere to be found in the state bodegas. The appearance of a dozen or so flats of eggs in one shop last week elicited an excitement not unlike one would expect outside a booth selling tickets to the latest K-Pop sensation at Seoul.


To survive, the Cubans must turn to what they call the “informal market” that surfaced following some minor economic liberalization efforts in the mid-1990s and more dramatic changes with reforms to the country’s constitution in 2018. In almost every other doorway, homeowners have set up tiny markets selling cigarettes, candy, bottles of rum, or other consumables not available in the state stores. Small farmers markets offer pineapples, yucca, garlic, and other produce shipped in from the countryside. The problem with these informal storefronts is the prices.

Most Cubans earn around 3,000 pesos a month, the equivalent of $24 a month at the official exchange rate and $17 at black-market rates. A can of beer costs 150 pesos in these informal stores. A lollipop sells for 60. Pork was selling for 400 pesos a pound, and tomatoes for 50 pesos a pound. One shop was asking 250 pesos for a bag of American M&Ms. A bottle of rum purchased with a ration card costs 225 pesos; a bottle of rum in the informal stores costs 1,200 pesos.

“We’re hungry, man,” an elderly man who works as a security guard in the newer Vedado neighborhood said. “They sell pizzas for 1,800 pesos over there,” he added, gesturing to a nearby open-air restaurant. “That’s a month’s wages for me. What the hell am I supposed to do?”

Influencers have taken over the high-end restaurants of Havana’s old town.
Scott Norvell/The New York Sun

For tourists with dollars and euros, the prices are manageable. Dinner for two at an upscale restaurant in the old town costs the equivalent of about $30, and modest rooms in the guest houses that are now allowed to advertise on Airbnb cost about $40 or $50 a night. A one-hour cruise in one of the old convertibles, without an accompanying paparazzi, costs $35.

Most of the visitors to Havana these days — there were 250,000 visitors in January, according to Cuban government figures, a significant increase from the 86,000 who came during the same month in 2022 — are Europeans, Canadians, and Cubans living abroad returning to visit family.

About 24,000 were Americans, who are technically not allowed to visit for touristic purposes but only for various humanitarian, professional, or educational purposes. Most slip through the Treasury Department’s rules by declaring their visit as one in “support for the Cuban people” and promising not to patronize any of the large hotels, which are almost all joint-ventures between the government and European hotel chains.

A restaurant catering to tourists in the provincial city of Trinidad. Scott Norvell/The New York Sun

Given the animosity between the U.S. and Cuban governments, and the latter’s insistence that the American embargo — as opposed to the Communist regime’s economic malfeasance — is the root of all the island’s troubles, Americans could be forgiven for expecting a less-than warm welcome from the locals.

In fact, the opposite is true. Instead of a scowl, an American tourist wandering around the grimier parts of Havana is more likely to be greeted with a high-five or a hearty handshake and regaled with stories about all the relatives they have living in the United States. Havana is also one of the safest cities in the world for foreign tourists. Petty crime is rare, and violent crime against foreigners is unheard of.

Nor does there appear to be much resentment toward the tourists and their profligate spending or penchant for poking their cameras in everyone’s faces. One young man on Malecon last week grumbled about how he now knows how animals in Africa must feel when surrounded by jeeps full of telephoto-toting tourists, but he said it with a shrug and a sly smile. A medical student who was with him expressed dismay that food is abundant at the tourist resorts but not in the state stores, “but we don’t blame the tourists for that,” she said, “we blame the government for that.”

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use