Slow and Steady Wins This Race

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Published on May 2, 2017, at 5:05 p.m.
by Clara Balestrieri and Kayla Sullivan.

During the Obama presidency, Cuba and the United States began to normalize relations. The Cuban Embassy was established in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Embassy was established in Havana, Cuba. Travel restrictions were initially eased to allow Cuban-Americans to visit family members in Cuba.

In the 1960s, the United States imposed an embargo against Cuba. According to ProCon , “The embargo, known among Cubans as ‘el bloqueo’ or ‘the blockade,’ consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce for all people and companies under US jurisdiction.”

Although Obama began to normalize relations in 2016 significantly (take into consideration that Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country since 1928), most of the embargo restrictions still remain in effect, causing confusion and uncertainty in the relationship between United States and Cuba.

There are several roadblocks to traveling the short distance there, but the exciting race to Cuba is still on. Here is what you need to know:

Who can go
In 2016, six commercial airlines received approval to resume scheduled flights between the two countries for the first time in over half a century. However, a few airlines have backed out of the scheduled flights and the airlines remaining have lowered the number of flights available.

New York Times wrote in an article, “Experts say the changes in the young market illustrate not so much a lack of passengers, but the rush of airlines into new territory with an abundance of seats the market could not possibly fill.”

The opportunity to attract tourists to Cuba is there; we just have to be able to get there.

For a U.S. citizen to travel to Cuba, you must meet one of the 12 criteria to receive a visa. Some of the criteria include visiting family members, humanitarian projects, journalism and education. General tourism is not one of the criteria. Also, American companies still are not allowed to do business there, and America credit cards are unusable.

Despite the lingering tourism ban, Americans are making the trip. Co-director of the Cuba Center at The University of Alabama, Dr. Michael Schnepf, has made numerous trips to Cuba. He travels there with students and professors to the University of Havana. On these trips the students take classes taught only in Spanish along with Cuban students. Professors are completing research projects, setting up exchange programs and generally building better U.S.-Cuban relations.

“There are a lot of Americans there,” Schnepf said on the changes between his first and most recent trip in April. There is no reason to fear the seemingly daunting language barrier either. Schnepf said that Cubans are generally better bilingually than U.S. citizens and know a fair amount of English.

“I spoke Spanish at an elementary/intermediate level before I traveled to Cuba the first time, so I was always able to get around,” said Grace Turner, a UA student who has studied abroad in Cuba twice.

Why you should go
Because of the general tourism ban in Cuba, there has been little advertising in the U.S. for travel to country. You definitely won’t see any Cuban businesses advertising in the U.S. Advertising is not a part of the Cuban culture. Spaces where Americans are used to seeing advertising — such as roadside billboards — are reserved for political propaganda in Cuba.

The Atlantic stated in an article, “Certainly, there is no advertising to be found on billboards — only propagandistic edicts like ‘Socialism or Death!’ as appearing on one roadside sign on the highway from Jose Marti airport to Havana. There is no advertising on television, either, save for the occasional government-sponsored public service announcement that might bookend — but would never interrupt — a program.”

So how do businesses survive without advertising? Public relations can play a vital role through word of mouth. That word of mouth can be spread around Cuba through respected visitors from the United States.

Other than Conan O’Brien and several politicians’ trips to Cuba, including President Obama, there have been few publicized trips by public figures. In 2015, Conan O’Brien did a remote special called “Conan in Cuba” for his late night talk show “Conan” on TBS. During the special he took a Cuban Spanish lesson, visited a rum museum and cigar factory, dined at a paladar (or family run restaurant) and completed salsa lessons.

Outside of what “Conan” showed viewers on his special, there is still a mystery to Cuba that is the focus for advertising to tourists. Unless one researches about what Cuba has to offer, there are no attractions generally being advertised to potential tourists. Yet, Cuba has so many special gems.

Turner insisted that the “disorganized” and uncertain nature of the country inspired its culture. She also noted, “The music, dance, street art — it’s incredibly vibrant.”

Dr. Schnepf believes that cigars, rum and a possible Major League Baseball expansion will become a huge draw in the future. But the most important draw to Cuba for Schnepf is the many lasting friendships he has made.

“The best thing about Cuba is the people,” Schnepf said. He can recount many stories about the hospitable nature of Cubans and says that despite being very poor they will always find food for another guest.

Proceed with caution
As a tourist, it may seem difficult to navigate Cuban culture. However, we must understand that Cubans are also learning a new culture — tourism. Both parties are still testing the waters as to what boundaries need to be put in place.

Turner mentioned that tourists should be aware of people who approach them on the street. These people could specialize in “jineterismo” – which could mean street hustling or private sector tourism. She noticed over the course of her trips that scams aimed toward tourists had become more advanced. She would take “maquinas” (or the rusty, vintage cars) for a cheap and authentic experience seeing as this is what the Cubans do.

Attempting to adapt to Cuban culture should help tourists from sticking out to scammers, but individuals from both parties taking advantage of the uncertain terms should be expected in the beginning.

Both Schnepf and Turner voiced a similar concern about the influx tourism. They both hope that the profits reach to all Cuban citizens, and that a large class divide is not formed. They also provided the same example of a taxi driver making a significantly larger income than a doctor to explain that tourism is already having effects on Cuban culture.

Cuba is a country full of beauty, culture and opportunities, and it is our duty to respect everything the country has to offer. Americans need to enter the country open minded with the desire to learn a new culture. It may only be 90 miles, but is a whole world away.

What PR professionals can do
Public relations professionals will play a crucial role in establishing this new and fragile relationship. Two-way communication is key. Both countries must take time in setting the foundation for tourism.

From the U.S. side, we need to understand that our actions will impact Cubans and their culture more so than ours. We must take time in learning their way of life and understanding where lines are drawn. A slow transition and implementation of tourism will be best to allow both parties to communicate what is working and what is not.

Americans are known for always leaving some lasting effect wherever they go. We must realize that we are traveling to Cuba to experience their culture and not to change it. PR professionals can help by encouraging education of Cuban culture before traveling to the country and following what rules they already have set in place.

From the Cuba side, you should be cautious of who is profiting from tourism and allow everyone to benefit. Also, be clear and vigilant if tourism is having negative effects on your way of life. Communicating will be critical in preparing and executing successful tourism practices.

Educate tourists about your history, food, art, music and way of life. Celebrate what makes Cuba special! Encourage tourists to adapt to Cuban culture rather than the other way around.

Let us both heed age-old advice and let the slow and steady win this race.

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