U.S. President Barack Obama's announcement that he will make a historic visit to Cuba in March marks another step in the normalization of relations between the two countries — and once again raises questions about how the Canadian tourism experience in Cuba could change.
- Barack Obama set to make historic visit to Cuba
- Cuba booming as tourists flock there before Americans come
- Cuba, U.S. to restore diplomatic relations after 50-year rift
On Tuesday, the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement to restore American commercial flights to the Caribbean country for the first time since the two nations became estranged 50 years ago.
During those five decades, Canada has been one of Cuba's main sources of tourism.
"I think a lot of Canadians and others are probably wanting to get to Cuba before the American onslaught," said Arch Ritter, an economics and international affairs professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. "It was very nice for Canadians to be there and they seemed to be welcomed by the Cubans, and I'm sure that's the case now for the Americans."
Next month, I'll travel to Cuba to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people.— @POTUS
That "onslaught" of tourists from the U.S. has already begun, according to Jury Krytiuk, senior travel agent in the Cuban department of A. Nash Travel Inc. in Mississauga, Ont.
"There has been a stampede of Americans wanting to see Cuba before it changes," Krytiuk said. "It's just been chaotic."
But the increased demand hasn't affected accommodation prices for Canadians yet, he said, because U.S. tourists have primarily been travelling to Havana and sightseeing destinations for educational purposes, while Canadians mainly visit Cuba for beach vacations.
So for now, Krytiuk said, Canadians noticing higher prices at Cuban resorts should blame the falling loonie, not an influx of American tourists.
But that could change, he noted.
"If they start selling beach vacations [to U.S. travellers], then I can see the prices going up for Canadians also, because the hotels are going to sell to whoever gives them the best price," Krytiuk said.
"Even though Cuba keeps saying, 'Canada is our friend, they were there when nobody else was there, we will never forget them,' politics is politics and the dollar rules."
Cuba unlikely to become 'Americanized'
Both Krytiuk and Ritter believe Canadian tourists' fears that Cuba will become Americanized as relations open with the U.S. are unfounded, at least in the short term.
"There's always a risk, but I personally don't think it's that large a risk," Ritter said. "The Cubans for some time to come would want to maintain their unique culture and their unique economic culture, which is very distinct."
"Everybody's talking about Cuba changing, but how is it going to change and who's going to be in charge of that change?" Krytiuk asked. "They think there's going to be a Walmart on every corner or a McDonald's on every corner?
"The Cuban people are proud of their culture and they're going to want to protect their culture and their image and not have it Americanized the way Puerto Rico was."
Ritter said entrepreneurship has been on the rise in Cuba since it was legalized in 2010, and there doesn't appear to be an appetite for U.S.-style franchises over local business culture.
"I think that's something that a lot of Cubans would like to see flourish and continue, because it does maintain sort of a unique economy," he said. "Over a longer period of time that may change. But say for the next 20 years, my guess is that they will try and keep the huge chains out of the country."