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Cuba, Then and Now: Have U.S. Travelers Already Changed Cuba?

As a college student in 2002, I was lucky to be part of a small group of Americans who gained legal passage to Cuba through a little-known educational byway. I couldn’t have timed my visit better, because shortly thereafter the U.S. government implemented a policy change that eliminated the travel exemption for Cuba.

Back then, Fidel Castro himself invited my group to meet him while we were in Havana. He provided the Cuba Libras and we indulged him in a six-hour propaganda soapbox before showing him how much American college kids like to party.

When President Obama announced the easing of travel restrictions in March, more than a decade after my first visit, I immediately started planning another trip—but not without some hesitation. The restrictions that have kept Cuba isolated all these years have also contributed to its extraordinary singularity as a travel destination. My worry this time around? That the increase in American tourism to Cuba would change it as a travel destination.

Cuba, Then and Now

Imagine a place where technology hasn’t advanced much past 1959. Sure, there’s spotty Internet in a few areas, but the government only allows access to state-approved sites. Facebook is allowed, YouTube is not. There are no stock markets, no private banks, and no advertising apart from the occasional “Socialismo o Muerte” (Socialism or Death) billboards. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the right to bear arms are very much foreign concepts, too.

But those things aside, the Cuba I visited in 2002 is already disappearing. Broadly speaking, the biggest difference is that everyone seems to have lightened up. Cuba is on the precipice of great change, and you can feel it in the air.

In 2002, I had a difficult time getting anyone to talk to me on the streets of Havana, especially about the government. This time around, I found myself chatting with the locals about Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, and everyone was excited to hear about America. Even the taxi drivers were willing and able to share their opinions about Cuba and its place in the world.

There’s a lot of mounting hope. But I fear that newfound openness comes at a price.

A Changing Country

I’m excited for the people of Cuba about the positive changes headed their way, but I’m also saddened to know that it won’t be long before we Americans capitalize on the situation. How soon until the whole country gets Starbucked? How long before we infect their happy temperament with our conspicuous consumption? Will we replace their beautiful Spanish colonial architecture with the golden arches?

I hope that some things about Cuba will never change: their love of baseball, salsa dancing, music, and art chief among then. But most of all, I hope that if I return in another decade or two, I’ll find them still greeting Americans with a big smile—and not the kind of resentment that might come along with the Americanization of a fiercely isolated culture.

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By Melissa McGibbon

Melissa McGibbon is an award-winning adventure travel journalist, editor, and photographer. She is the Senior Editor at Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine and is an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers Editors Council and the North American Travel Journalists Association. Her work also appears in Outside Magazine,, Elevation Outdoors, and

Her favorite travel accomplishments include circumnavigating the globe on a ship, meeting with Fidel Castro, BASE jumping in Idaho, flying over an erupting volcano in Iceland, skiing steep chutes in Canada, and downhill mountain biking in Peru.

She is usually skiing, biking, climbing, practicing yoga, flying, diving, or surfing—and is always in pursuit of adventure, travel, or some daring combination of the two.

Follow Melissa on Twitter @mcmliss or on Instagram @missmliss. Her website is

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