Guest blog for MeetMeOnBoard.com
President Trump declared on Friday that he will be “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal” with Cuba. According to Trump, Obama’s “easing of restrictions of travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only enrich the Cuban regime.”
I worked as a tour guide on the inaugural round of Fathom Cuba sailings last year. I’m only speaking from my first-hand boots-on-the-ground experience with the responsibility of upholding the Obama-era travel policy. For me, that meant making sure every passenger signed an affidavit before they disembarked the ship in Cuba. They needed to declare whether they would:
If passengers elected to be fully or partially self-guided, they opted out of the ship excursion, but still had the US government’s permission to tour Cuba on their own, as long as they kept a journal or log of the day’s events. It may sound simple here, but explaining this to cruise passengers was sometimes complicated. For example, here is one frequently asked question and my response:
Am I allowed to go to the beach? Yes and no. No one from the ship will stop a passenger from going to the beach, but technically, it must be for P2P travel. For example, if you go the beach, drink a mojito, and sunbathe, that is considered touristic travel and therefore not allowed. If you go to the beach, and, for example, take a Spanish class or have meaningful conversations with the Cubans around you, that is allowed. Whatever happens at the beach, make sure you write it down in a journal that the US government may or may not ask you for five years from now.
As you can see, the line between what is or isn’t P2P is kind of blurry. Even if a passenger went on a certified excursion organized by the ship, there was always the possibility that they could spend the whole day on a bus and never speak to a Cuban other than their tour guide. Yet, it still seemed that everyone was allowed off the ship to tour Cuba as they pleased.
So what exactly has changed?
Under the new policy, self-directed individual travel, which was permitted by the Obama administration, will be prohibited (see 2 and 3 from above). President Trump instructed the Treasury to issue regulations ending individual people-to-people travel. This means prohibiting travel that: “does not involve academic study pursuant to a degree program” and does not have “an employee, consultant, or agent… [accompanying] each group to ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”
US tourists flying to Cuba can manuever around this regulation. They can go through Mexico or Canada. Or they can hire a certified tour company in Cuba, or apply for advance permission from any of the other 12 categories of travel.
But for cruisers, this could mean that you are forbidden from getting off the ship unless you book a tour with the cruise line. Even though Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, and Holland America have all issued statements that their itineraries will be unaffected by the new policy, the issue of self-certification and mandatory excursions has not been addressed.
After reading many confused comments and posts, I created two informal polls in two different Facebook groups for passengers sailing to Cuba via Royal Caribbean or Carnival. The interpretation of Friday’s announcement varied dramatically. Although passengers on both cruise lines will be subject to the same policy, they have received contradictory messaging.
Beyond that, many other unanswered questions remain. What happens if a passenger books an excursion, enters Cuba, and then ditches it to go off on their own? Will the cruise line report them to US authorities? And who exactly in the ship’s company will enforce all of this? For the cruise lines, when a ship is docked, keeping track of every passenger is virtually impossible.
According to the White House, “President Trump’s policy changes will encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.” This policy shift, at least for cruising, appears to do the opposite. If passengers are required to take ship excursions rather than go off on their own, more money flows directly to the Cuban government, which organizes those tours, than to the Cuban people, who are isolated from passengers and their incidental on-the-street spending like food, taxis or tips.
The cost to the Cuban people: Remember, Cuban government salaries are very meager. The average person earns between 300 and 800 Cuban Pesos per month ($10-30). Cubans must work multiple jobs to afford luxuries, and many are entering the tourism industry in anticipation of this cruising wave. College professors have swapped their careers to be tour guides, and even doctors and surgeons drive cabs. If American cruisers aren’t allowed on their own to walk the streets of Cuba, direct access to passengers will be limited to the government, and independent Cubans will be out of luck.
Currently, the Cuban government receives a cut from ship excursion sales. Passengers pay upwards of $200 for a full day’s activities, leaving them no time or budget to support local businesses. On top of the tours, the cruise lines pay port fees and taxes to reserve a spot at the Sierra Maestra Cruise Terminal, which can only hold two ships per day. Not to mention, the tour guides on the ship excursions work directly for the government, so their message is never critical of Castro, their own government, or the revolution. If Trump actually wanted to “encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses” then he wouldn’t force Americans to pay for tours organized by the Cuban government.
This isn’t the first time that Cuba cruises have been under pressure. Last year, when two lawsuits were filed against Carnival because booking was denied to Cuban-born Americans, the Fathom cruise line was accused of upholding an unfair Cuban law. Carnival worked closely with the Cuban government to reach an agreement easing the long-standing ban. Cruise passengers have the power to influence international policy.
Letting passengers off the ship to explore Cuba on their own would help the Cuban people, but be in defiance of Trump’s executive order.
How will the cruise industry deal with this paradox?
Interview with Speaking of Travel
"Greg Shapiro, author of 12 Hours in Havana, tells us how travel impacts his life choices and how he looks at the world. His early experiences, including a cruise to Alaska in 8th grade and a birthright to Israel trip, began a love of traveling. Greg took a a semester off during college for a 3-month group backpacking trip through Bolivia and Peru and was a guide on the first cruise to Cuba from the U.S. in 50 years and has led many tours in Havana. A must listen!"
In honor of 4th of July weekend, I want to celebrate our country's independence by putting my guidebook 12 Hours in Havana on sale for the first time. Because I worked on cruise ships every summer, this is my first 4th of July back on land in quite some time. It's one of my favorite holidays because no matter what's going on politically, we can all appreciate how great it is to be American and have the privilege travel the world! This inside scoop will never go on sale. (Not up to me. Amazon only allows me to do this promotion once.) The book helps you plan, budget, and navigate in a simple and organized way + tips from locals + 6 custom maps + an offline guide you can download to any smartphone. You'll never get lost in Havana because the map works without cell signal or wifi by using your phone's GPS. Even if you're going on a tour, your experience will be enhanced because you'll have the perfect foundation of knowledge. use the book to create your own itinerary and then simply give it to the tour guide. Just mix and match what you want to do. If Havana is in your future, checkout my book on Amazon. Have a great weekend!
Guest Post for CruiseCritic.com
Cuba is a cultural and political enigma, making it one of the most fascinating countries you might ever visit. In the 1920s, Cuba experienced a tourism boom that made Havana the most visited city in the Caribbean but since Fidel Castro's revolution of the 1950s the country has been in a long period of isolation from the United States. Today it's a worn down country, with signs of neglect everywhere and yet, you can still see signs of its former heyday.
Since the loosening of restrictions on travel to Cuba enacted last year, every major cruise line has added the island country to its Caribbean itineraries. But because of its long isolation, one of the challenges of planning Cuba cruise excursions is a lack of reliable information. Cruise Critic reached out to an expert who served as a guide on the first round of Cuba cruises offered by now-defunct Fathom Cruises to help you avoid the rookie mistakes he's seen others make.
If your goal is to save money and see as much as possible during your limited time in Cuba, here are eight things you'll definitely want to avoid.
1. Don't bring USD.
Because of the U.S. trade embargo, debit and credit cards from the United States won't work in Cuba, making it a country where cash is still king, so once you get there, you'll need to get CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos, pronounced kooks). There's an extra 13 percent fee for exchanging U.S. dollars, so bring euros, pounds or Canadian dollars instead. While some Cuban businesses may accept USD, it's costly for them to exchange it back to their own currency, so it's much more considerate to pay and tip in CUC. Even though the cruise terminal has multiple exchange booths, the volume of passengers getting off at the same time can occasionally create a long line to exchange money. To maximize your time in Havana, already have some Cuban currency so you can start your day immediately. On the ship, ask your cabin steward or server if they have any extra CUCs that they'd be willing to exchange with you. And, in addition to the cruise terminal, you can exchange money at the San Jose Artisans' Market down the street from the terminal, and at most hotels.
2. Do not take photos or videos of people without asking permission and tipping after.
If you pass a cute little grandma sitting on a bench smoking a cigar and you want to take her picture, ask for permission first and then give her a tip after. In the Plazas of Old Havana and Parque Central, elaborately costumed Cubans will pose for pictures. Musicians will serenade you. Artists will sketch you and hand you the drawing. They all expect a tip; 1 to 3 CUCs will do. One of the most common complaints about Havana has to do with the jineteros, street hustlers who may act friendly at first, but whose true agenda is to make money off you. These hustlers will often try to pass themselves off as musicians or street artists. Make your boundaries clear from the beginning and respectfully but firmly decline any services you are not interested in by saying, "No, gracias" and walking away.
3. Don't forget to bring toilet paper and a large water bottle with you when getting off the ship.
In Cuba, hygiene and bathroom products are hard to come by. Most public bathrooms, including the ones at the cruise terminal, have an attendant who is responsible for cleaning and restocking the bathroom. He or she expects a 0.50 CUC coin as a tip. In exchange, he or she will hand you a few pieces of toilet paper. Some bathrooms don't even have an attendant, so as a precaution, carry some toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you just in case. As far as drinking water goes, Cuba is hot, and you need to stay hydrated. It's unsafe to drink the tap water, so your best bet is to have bottled water with you at all times. If you don't want to purchase bottled water from your cruise ship, consider bringing along a refillable bottle, which you can fill with ice and water from the ship before disembarking.
4. Do not ask controversial questions.
It's inappropriate to confront Cubans about their personal political views upon meeting them. While you might have good intentions, direct questions (Are you a communist?) create an uncomfortable dynamic. Broad, open-ended questions (What was life like for your parents?) give Cubans a chance to reveal on their own terms. To make for more interesting and informed conversations with locals, do some research before you get to Cuba. Watch Cuban films like "Havana Blues" and "Una Noche," read books like "Waiting for Snow in Havana" and "Telex from Cuba," and most importantly, remember that just like anywhere else in the world, opinions are not universally shared.
5. Don't expect accessibility.
The majority of Havana was built before the 1960s and most buildings haven't seen much upkeep since. Elevators, escalators and ramps are rare. Navigating the city's uneven streets by wheelchair or scooter can be challenging without a strong companion to assist. Additionally, there are not always stop signs or streetlights, so use caution when crossing any intersection. If you move a little slower and are wondering how to plan your day, consider starting out with a taxi tour, building in a long break for lunch and exploring Old Havana in the late afternoon when it's less crowded.
6. Don't skip the Tropicana.
If you only have one night in Havana, do not miss this show. Despite its larger-than-life reputation and relatively expensive ticket, you will not be disappointed by the gigantic cast of singers, dancers and musicians performing in this theater under the stars. However, you'll be sitting outside, so dress accordingly, but neatly -- no shorts, tank tops, etc. If it's raining, the show moves inside to a chilly, air-conditioned theater, so bring a jacket or sweater if the skies are gray. To save a little money, skip the cruise offering and go on your own; ticket packages are 70 to 90 CUCs, depending on your seat but an unobstructed view is worth the extra cost. The package also includes Champagne and a bottle of rum. A 40-minute taxi ride there and back, depending on where you are coming from, should cost around 30 CUCs each way. The show starts at 10 p.m. nightly, but arrive by 9 to get a good spot. Reservations can be made at tourist hotspots and hotels throughout the city.
7. Don't be afraid to explore on your own.
Cuba is extremely safe, and we recommend building in some time away from the cruise ship crowds to immerse in the local culture. Though most people don't speak English, those who work in the tourism industry will know, at the very least, some basic English. Still, speaking or understanding Spanish will make getting around easier. No matter your ability, preparation can't hurt. Look into where you might want to go before you travel, and brush up on basic Spanish vocabulary.
8. Finally, don't get overly attached to your plans.
Traveling in Cuba can be unpredictable, so don't be surprised if your plans (or the cruise line's excursion) has to change. There could be a random power outage, a national holiday you didn't know about or something just closed for no discernible reason. That's life in Cuba, so relax, have fun and go with the flow.
Author and Havana guide Greg Shapiro is profiled on the weekly live show, CruiseWeek.TV
Watch Below @ 21:41
Featured on The Crew Center
In the cruise-lit world, the crew member nonfiction format rarely strays from the memoir. Greg Shapiro, who worked as a crew member for both Royal Caribbean and Fathom Travel, is breaking the mold with his new book 12 Hours in Havana: Build your perfect day in Cuba
In a recent interview, Shapiro talks about his experience working as a guide on one of the first cruises to Cuba. “It was the most incredible sail in. From the moment we saw Havana on the horizon, an electric energy swept across the ship.”
The book organizes Havana’s quintessential attractions into convenient and easy-to-follow itineraries, illustrated on iPhone-sized maps, inspired by the animated show Dora the Explorer, where Shapiro worked as a designer before his career at sea.
In an early review of 12 Hours in Havana, renowned travel agent Rob Belles calls the book “essential to anyone looking for the best way to get around” and full of “vivid descriptions that made it easy to retrace my steps.”
The most unique feature of the book allows users to download a map on their smartphones, which Co-Owner of MeetMeOnBoard.com Dale McCurdy says is “particularly important because the map function works even with the spotty internet in Cuba"
12 Hours in Havana: Build your perfect day in Cuba is now available as an eBook on Amazon, with a paperback set to debut in Summer 2017.
Reviewed by Rob Belles, TravelLikeAnArchitect.com
“North Americans don’t understand… that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity.” – Fidel Castro
Is Cuba a repressive Communist country? Is Cuba a country of compassionate humans? These were questions my wife Lynn and I had before we set foot in Havana. Having traveled to over thirty countries on four continents, we’ve seen a lot but are always looking for new adventures. In May 2016, just after President Obama relaxed the travel restrictions to Cuba, we debarked on the second cruise to Cuba in over fifty years.
It was on that cruise that we met Greg Shapiro, a fathom Impact Guide. One year later I was pleased to learn that he wrote a book, 12 Hours in Havana: Build your perfect day in Cuba. Whether you’re going by air or sea, 12 Hours in Havana is a prerequisite for anyone heading to Havana. I wish this book would have existed when Lynn and I were in Cuba. Although fathom did offer guided tours, we had plenty of free time for exploring on our own. And explore we did. But we also nearly got lost.
12 Hours in Havana is a treasure trove of information and trivia about Cuba – the culture and history are worth reading even if you are not planning to travel to Havana. Travel tips include everything from currency, taxis, LGBT culture, and personal recommendations on places to eat. (Cuban food is so delicious!)
It’s the wonderful and well-documented itineraries that make the book essential to anyone looking for the best way to get around. Greg distilled his personal experience and organized the best of the Havana into efficient, exciting, and easy-to-follow journeys. As I read through each, the vivid descriptions made it easy to mentally retrace my steps. There were a few unique places we walked right by and had no idea existed. As a bonus feature, Greg utilizes the app Maps.Me to create a map you can download to your phone, which works without Internet (essential in Cuba).
Overall, the book is well written, concise, and easy to use. You would be foolish to go to Havana without this essential guide. 12 Hours in Havana Build your perfect day in Cuba is available on Amazon.
Guest Post for CruiseFever.net
Of all the ports I’ve sailed into as a crew member, Havana is my favorite. I fell in love with the city while working as a guide on the first round of Cuba cruises. We were the only ship from the United States, with just 700 passengers every 2 weeks. This summer is the beginning of a new era for Havana. If you’re considering a cruise to Cuba, don’t hesitate! But make sure you follow my insider tips to get the most out of your visit.
#1- Don’t miss the sail in: Sailing into Havana is like going back in time. On the port side of the ship, you’ll get up close and personal with the Morro Castle as you sail through the narrow harbor. On the starboard side, you’ll enjoy a panoramic view of hustle and bustle of central Havana, Art Deco facades, classic cars, and pedestrian traffic on the Malécon, Cuba’s ocean-front boulevard. Get a good spot on the top deck early in the morning and bring your binoculars.
#2- Carry a lot of water with you: It’s going to be a long, sweaty day and you need water by your side. I suggest investing in a 40 oz. Hydroflask. Fill it with ice and water from the ship before disembark. You’ll have cold water for 12+ hours and create less waste from buying and disposing plastic bottles.
#3- Don’t get stuck in the line to exchange money: Your credit and debit cards from the United States likely won’t work in Cuba so you’ll need to exchange money…and so does everyone else. Either get off the ship before you’re fellow cruisers, or possibly get stuck in an hour long backup at the exchange booths in the cruise terminal. Another option is to exchange money at the San José Artisans Market down the street. Save money: Make sure you bring Euros, Pounds, or Canadian Dollars to avoid the extra 13% exchange fee on United States Dollars.
#4- Get away from the bus: Tours are great, but let’s face it, you spend more time stuck on a bus than you do immersing in the local culture. Budget some time in your schedule to stroll around the Plazas of Old Havana or visit a museum near Parque Central. Just make sure you check the “self-guided” box when you fill out your affidavit. This means that you agree to document the educational and cultural activities you do while you’re in Cuba.
#5- Do some research beforehand: Enrichment presentations can be hit or miss, so don’t wait until you’re onboard to start thinking about Cuban politics and culture. This doesn’t mean you have to bury your head in a long history book. Rent the movie Una Noche. It’s a thriller about teenagers who try and escape Havana on a homemade raft. If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, checkout my cruise-friendly guide 12 Hours in Havana available on Amazon.
Interview with MeetMeOnBoard.com
We met Greg aboard our Fathom cruise last year and were impressed by his wit and travel knowledge. We’re excited to welcome this articulate gay traveler, writer and artist to the MeetMeOnBoard family.
We were delighted to hear that your book 12 Hours in Havana is now available. We’ll delve into the book in a minute, but what ignited your love of cruising?
My first cruise was to Alaska in the 8th grade. I performed in the kids’ talent show and the lounge singer let me reprise my act in the Centrum. She made me fall in love with the idea that someone could just travel the world and perform. In my mind, there was nothing more fabulous than that.
Where did you work before Fathom and what were your duties?
I was at Royal Caribbean where my official job title was “Digital Signage and ITV Content Specialist.” I was in charge of the all of the TVs and touchscreens on the entire ship. On the Anthem of Seas, I deployed the emergency signage system, so my muster station was on the bridge. Sometimes it was exciting, like during a huge storm, when I had to trek to the broadcast room to make sure that all of the passenger cabins got free pay-per-view movies. Hero moment! When I wasn’t exploring the different ports, most of my time was spent wandering around the ship.
We met you abroad Adonia when you worked for Fathom teaching Spanish to cruisers. Our trip was to the Dominican Republic, and your very next voyage was to Havana. In fact, it was the first cruise ship from the USA to sail to Cuba in 50 years. How did it feel to be a part of that historical moment?
It was the most incredible sail in of my life. From the moment we saw Havana on the horizon, an electric energy swept across the ship. The Cuban people lined the ocean wall and cheered our arrival. When I stepped out of the port onto the street, we were crowded like celebrities. It felt like I was meeting long-lost cousins at a family reunion.
Tell us some stories that you remember about cruisers on those first few voyages to Havana.
Escorting an older couple on their motor-scooters. Havana’s streets are very uneven so we had to crisscross the street and ended up stopping traffic. The wife almost rolled into the ocean, but we grabbed her just in time. The couple didn’t seem to notice any of the commotion around them. In fact, they had a great time!
The most touching thing I witnessed was when I helped reunite a woman with her neighbors she hadn’t seen in over 50 years. She’s an American who had to flee Cuba with her family when she was a little girl. When I saw them all together, I was crying my eyes out.
What are some common mistakes that visitors make in Cuba?
Asking “Are you a communist?” You can come across as confrontational and put Cubans on the defense. If you’re insistent on talking politics, ask “What was life like for your parents growing up?” It’s a softer approach that lets someone open up on their own terms.
What strikes you most about the Cuban people?
They are multi-talented. They speak different languages, probably play an instrument, and are well-versed in history and politics. A college professor could be your tour guide, a heart surgeon could be your taxi driver. Cubans are also very familiar with music and entertainment from the United States. They watch episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “Scandal” from a weekly hard-drive that comes from Miami and then gets passed around the country. And they love Obama.
What should LGBT visitors know about Cuba?
Cuba has that same machismo culture as the rest of Latin America, but add a massive Revolution that weakened the Catholic Church, gave women equal rights, and brought with it new sexual dynamics. Compared to other Latin American countries, Cubans are much less conservative in their views on casual sex, dating, and marriage.
Still, the government has a rocky history of persecuting LGBT people. Though Fidel Castro did try to make amends for it before he died. Even though gay marriage isn’t legal, Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, is an outspoken advocate of it, so that may change soon.
Besides the novelty (especially for Americans), why visit Havana?
As a Caribbean port, it’s barely lost its virginity. You don’t see the crazy development around the cruise terminal like you would find elsewhere. It feels like a European port, where can get off the ship and just fold yourself into the hustle and bustle of a real city. And the art and culture is so unique. Live music everywhere, gorgeous architecture, white sand beaches, tasty food, fruity cocktails, and all for a low price. Clearly, I’m obsessed.
We loved the fact that your book was well-organized, very clear and made a lot of information digestible. Tell our members how it works with the interactive map.
I’m a big fan of the travel app Maps.Me. It downloads offline maps to your phone, and then when you don’t have wi-fi or cell signal, the map only needs your iPhone or Android’s GPS to work. An app like this is perfect for a city like Havana. You can download the restaurants, stores, museums, and other points of interest covered in 12 Hours in Havana as a set bookmarks with just a few clicks. You’ll have turn-by-turn directions and never get lost.
OUR TAKE: We can’t wait to get to Havana and this book will definitely be on our iPhones. The book is well-written and perfectly organized with different options for the time you have available, and works beautifully with the interactive map. Particularly important is that the map function works even in the spotty internet of Cuba. Five Anchors!