Tuesday, January 26, 2016

For currency exchange and 5-star tourist service, Cuba is still a work in progress

For currency exchange and 5-star tourist service, Cuba is still a work
in progress
Catharine HammContact Reporter

Question: We are planning a trip to Cuba. Is there a particular bank you
recommend to exchange euros?

Ricki Vancott

Los Angeles

Answer: No.

But sorry, readers. That's not the end of this column.

In fact, it opens the door to many, many questions readers have about
money in Cuba, which continues to be a hot destination.

In 2014, about 90,000 Americans visited the island nation; by the end of
2015, that number had jumped to 150,000, "CBS This Morning" reported
last week, a 60% increase. And if travel restrictions are ultimately
lifted, as many as 1.5 million people may visit, CBS reported, citing
Reuters and Marriott.

So let us state the obvious: Cuba is hot, hot, hot.

But changes to the infrastructure tourists deal with? Not, not, not. At
least, not thus far.

Much has changed since President Obama's December 2014 announcement
about normalizing relations with Cuba.

"Normalizing" is a bit of an overstatement. Yes, a U.S. Embassy has
reopened after more than 50 years. Yes, travel to Cuba now requires only
that it falls into one of 12 categories that make it allowable there. In
Obama's recent State of the Union message, he asked Congress to
reconsider the half-century embargo against Cuba.

It seems likely that politics will get in the way of travel pleasures —
at least in the short term. So for now, travel to Cuba is different,
beginning with the proviso that we, as travelers, must not go there to
lie on the beach but to learn about the culture. Not that "people to
people" travel, one of the 12 categories, is a bad thing. Returning home
with knowledge of the place you visited, and not just a new tan line, is
a win-win.

But travel to Cuba is still quirky, beginning with money. First you will
need to carry cash; credit cards are not yet widely accepted.

To Vancott's question about euros, many travelers believe that you'll
get a better exchange rate if you convert European currency instead of
U.S. dollars.

Doing so has "has become quite popular," said Cecilia Utne, president
and chief executive of Cross Cultural Journeys, which has been arranging
trips to Cuba since 1998. "Check on the exchange rate on the day that
you're making the transaction and what your bank is charging," she said.
"If you're sitting on a wad of euros or Canadian dollars, it might be a
little more beneficial."

But "might" is the operative word. Cuba, Utne noted, is not an
inexpensive destination, and although you never want to waste money, the
amount you save may be disproportionate to the effort to do so.

How much cash should you have? Unless you're planning to buy an
expensive piece of art, you can do just fine with about $100 a day, said
Amanda Bradshaw, trip coordinator for Distant Horizons, a Long Beach
travel agency that has led scores of trips to Cuba for nearly 20 years.
That should cover lunches and dinners (breakfast is usually included at
your hotel) and cab fares, depending, of course, on how far afield
you're going.

Don't convert all your cash, she added. You'll lose money when it's time
to convert it back, which you'll do before you leave. Also, don't walk
around with large amounts of cash. If you lose it and don't have a
reserve stash, you'll be up the proverbial creek, absent automated
teller machines.

Cuba will continue to evolve as a travel destination, but probably not
as quickly as we both fear and hope. The fear? Every corner will have a
U.S. fast-food joint or a coffee purveyor. The hope? The accommodations,
restaurants and other mainstays of serving tourists will improve.

One of Utne's challenges, she said, is making sure the expectations of
her well-educated clientele meet the reality of today's Cuba. It's not
yet a five-star experience, she noted, and she works to help her
travelers understand that Cuba is a work in progress.

The progress also means that to serve the expected influx of visitors —
ferry service and regular (not charter) air service by U.S. carriers is
expected this year — more and sometimes better hotels and restaurants
are needed.

Cuba is not ready for prime time. In an interview in Havana, Janet
Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, recently painted this picture for "CBS
This Morning": "If you came to me tonight and said, 'Janet, I need a
hotel room tonight,' I'd have to say, 'I can't give you one.'"

Fifty years of isolation won't disappear in the blink of an eye. Might
Cuba become Caribbean Disneyland one day? Possibly. But even the Magic
Kingdom wasn't built in a day.

Source: For currency exchange and 5-star tourist service, Cuba is still
a work in progress - LA Times -

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