How to be an Ethical Tourist in Cuba

Havana, Cuba - American visa restrictions

As of last week, American cruise ships are no longer permitted to visit Cuba. Last year I was fortunate enough to work on a ship that went to Havana once a week. When we docked there I would leave the ship every chance I could get and I became infatuated with this port in a way that I have never felt for any other destination I have visited. I made friends with the locals and I immersed myself in every cultural experience I could. I wandered the backroads to the point where I still know my way around them more than the giant shopping mall in my home city. The more I tried to get my head around its politics and its economics, the more confused I would get, but I saw what looked like progress. I saw small businesses flourishing and I saw an economy growing. I was excited about the future of this country (even more so than the future of my own - and that’s saying a lot). 

Last week’s law change is said to have been done to steer US dollars away from the Cuban regime. Under the previous ‘people to people’ visa category (by which cruise ship guests entered Cuba until last week), cruisers were warned not to do business with any government entities.  Cruise ship tours were organised to keep in line with the very strict policies that governed this. I witnessed many cruisers act almost rudely towards Cubans in refusing to enter establishments or interact with anyone in a manner that hadn’t been prearranged by the cruise line for fear that they would break this law. While the rules have always been a bit confusing, the cruisers were warned that they could be penalised for breaking them, even up to five years after their visit. 

The fact that Americans are no longer allowed to enter the country under an agreement like this, indicates that the US government doesn’t just want to divert their money away from the Cuban government but the Cuban economy in general. Unfortunately, I believe preventing cruise ships from docking in Cuba won’t affect the government half as much as it will affect the average enterprising man on the street who’s just trying to make ends meet. In fact, it is said that the reason Barak Obama enabled travel to Cuba under this ‘people-to-people’ agreement in the first place, was to help promote the independence of the Cuban people from their government. They’re the ones now losing their livelihoods and it’s not their fault. 

I shared my devastation at this news on Facebook and it resulted in a very long drawn-out, aggressive political debate. That was not the intention of that post and it is not the intention of this one either. If I offend you, I apologise, but despite the law change and the reasons behind it, I would really like to encourage people to visit Cuba. Though it may now be impossible to do that on a cruise ship, whether you are American or not, you are still able to go. (Americans can travel under the ‘Support for Cuban people’ visa category.) 

Irrespective of your reasons (legal or moral) there are a lot of ways you can have a great time by supporting the local people and not the government if that is your intention. 

When I was in Havana last year, I asked a few Cuban people how we as tourists can do this, or how we can differentiate between government and privately owned businesses. I never got a straight answer. Apparently, it can be tricky to distinguish between the two. Here, however, are some conclusions I have reached from my many conversations and experiences: 

Capital building - Havana, Cuba
El Capitolio

The basics:

Stay in Airbnbs instead of hotels

Since staying on a US-owned cruise ship is no longer an option, you will have to find another form of accommodation. A lot of hotels are government-owned. It is, therefore, preferable to stay in an Airbnb or one of the ‘casa particulares’ as they are called. Unfortunately, the people who operate privately-owned Airbnbs may be taxed for this, but much less of your money is likely to go to the government than if you were to stay in a hotel. If you know someone who has been to Cuba and can recommend a BnB, you could probably make a better deal directly with them, where you can pay in cash and less of your money goes to tax and middlemen. 

Eat in paladares instead of restaurants 

Paladares are tiny restaurants that people have opened in their homes. There is no shortage of them and they will give you an array of authentic Cuban dining experiences. They can often be identified by the fact that there are usually people standing outside trying to coax tourists in. 

Take privately owned taxis instead of government ones 

The good news is the vintage convertibles that you know you want to ride in are usually privately owned. Generally, cars built before 1959 are privately owned, anything more recent is the government's, but you can make certain by looking at the license plates:

Government vs private taxis - Cuba
According to a Cuban taxi driver, the white strip and the 'P' indicate a car that is privately owned.
The blue strip and the 'B' indicate a government-owned vehicle.

Don’t prebook your tours before your arrival 
Your Airbnb host can most likely recommend an independent tour operator. The taxi drivers who drive the vintage taxis usually offer taxi tours of all the main highlights (in Havana anyway, I can’t speak for the rest of the country). They are never hard to find.
Cubans are also exceptionally friendly. If you hang out in tourist hotspots independent tour guides may approach you to try to solicit your business. But other people will approach you just because they want to know your whole life story and tell you theirs (even if you don’t speak the same language at all). So, don’t treat conversations with strangers like you would telemarketing calls. 

Operate in cash as much as you can

It’s actually really hard to conduct any transactions electronically. I don’t remember seeing an ATM and I don’t know of any place anywhere that accepted credit cards. To be fair, I last visited the country in September and they only got mobile internet in December. (Yes, in 2018!) I’m not sure how things may have changed since. Tourists are often encouraged to bring Euros or Canadian dollars with them as they are taxed less than US dollars when you convert them to Cuban Convertible Pesos or ‘CUCs’. This way more money goes to you, and less to the government.

While operating in cash may seem archaic in this day and age, this is of benefit to the Cuban people. To spell it out, a Cuban friend tried to explain to me that in Cuba there are ‘two economies’: ‘Castro’s economy’ and ‘everyone else’s economy’/the survival economy. I can’t say to what degree the average Cuban person declares their earnings to their communist government or pays tax, I just know that it’s really hard to live off of what you’re ‘allowed’ to earn. While, as a tourist, you might have little option other than to operate in cash, I’m sure this works in favour of the average man on the street. This also means that the less you organise (and pay for online) prior to your trip, the better. 

When you get there, from what I can tell, the general rule of thumb seems to be that if someone is trying really hard to solicit your business, they most likely work for themselves or an independent company. If they work for the government their salary is fixed and they will probably be less likely to try to get your business. 

While I can’t speak for the whole country, if you intend to visit Havana, below is a more specific breakdown of how to support the people (to the best of my knowledge):

Yellow vintage car in Cuba

If you don’t want to support the government don’t do the following: 

  • Don’t go to government museums i.e. The Museum of the Revolution.
  • Don’t tour the Capitol building ‘El Capitolio’. (You can walk up to the main doors and take pictures though.)
  • Don’t go to Hotel Nacional or any other government-owned hotels. (Full list here)
  • (Or if you do decide to go to Hotel Nacional, just don’t spend any money. The missile tunnels are quite fascinating and - if I remember correctly - free) 
  • Don’t go to Cementario de Colón. (They charge tourists an entrance fee ...and you might get flashed.)
  • Don’t go to Gran Teatro de la Habana
  • Don’t go to the forts (there are quite a few of them)
  • And don’t go to the cigar factories (as far as I understand they are also government-owned).

(I must confess, when I was there, considering I was not American and not travelling under the same restrictions, I naively gave my money to more than one government-owned establishment on this list.)

Even if you eliminate all these places from your itinerary, you can still have an incredible vacation in this beautiful country.

Amazing experiences that don’t benefit the government:

You can walk the Malecón 

The Malecón is the street that runs along the water’s edge and the best place in Havana from which to watch the sunset.  Locals and tourists alike gather here throughout the day and especially during and just after sunset. The carnival happens at the main part of the road for about 10 days in August. If you hang around there, people will approach you, some genuinely just want to be your friend, others want to solicit your business. If you’re looking for an independent tour-guide you could possibly find one here. 

You can visit Catedral de la Habana 

Also known as ‘La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de la Habana’ or Catedral de San Cristobal. Completed in 1777, it is a Roman Catholic cathedral and is said to have once held the remains of Christopher Columbus (Or “Cristobal Colón” - I’m not sure why his name is different in different languages?) Being a functioning place of worship, access is free. 

Havana Cathedral

You can learn to Salsa

You can hire yourself a salsa instructor. If your Airbnb person doesn’t know of anyone, and you don’t meet someone on the Malecón, you can ask me and I’ll direct you to one.

You can tour the city in a vintage convertible

Going for a ride in a vintage convertible seems to be the thing to do in Havana. A lot of taxi drivers will offer you one or two hour tours of the main tourist hotspots at a price you can negotiate with them. Apart from showing you all the significant highlights in the old town of Havana, they can also take you a little bit further afield to show you the Plaza de la Revolucion (a fair distance from the old town) as well as the statue: Cristo de la Habana and the fort: La Cabaña (both on the other side of the harbour). 

Havana highlights
Plaza de la Revolucion  and  Cristo de la Habana

Your driver will definitely not let you drive, but if you ask him nicely, he will probably let you pretend to drive so you can take one of these pictures. You haven’t been to Havana until you’ve done it.

Tourist in pink vintage car

You can wander the backstreets …or the main roads …or both

Apart from stumbling upon street art (and numerous murals of Che Guevara) and sampling street food (churros - yum!), you can also explore the many squares and parks. Live music can be heard all over the place during the day and people-watching (of both tourists and locals) can always make for great entertainment.

Brightly colored Cuban street and vintage car

Mural - Havana, Cuba

Havana street scene

You can also arrange a private tour:

You can go on a walking tour

While you may not want to pay entrance to see the inside of a lot of this city’s famous landmarks, there’s no reason why an independent tour guide can’t explain their significance from the outside. A lot of people also really enjoy the Hemingway tours, where you can see where the writer spent some of his time. For the more active, bicycle tours are also on offer. 

Theatre - Havana, Cuba
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso

You can go to the beach
Well, if you’re American you may struggle to prove that working on your tan is part of your effort to ‘Support the Cuban people’ (and that’s probably why beach excursions were never offered by cruise ships for people travelling under the ‘people to people category’).  For the rest of us though, there is no harm in a beach day (as long as you wear a suitable SPF).

Near Havana itself, the ocean is quite polluted so you have to travel just out of the city to find your own slice of Caribbean paradise, but an independent taxi driver will happily take you. Going through the tunnel under the harbour in a convertible is an experience in itself. 

Palm tree lined beach in Havana, Cuba
Santa Maria Playa not far from Havana

You can visit the art districts.  And there are quite a few:

- Callejon de Hamel

Just beyond the old town, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona has transformed a tiny road into a colourful exhibition. Since the 1990s he has been filling his street with murals and art created from repurposed objects. Bathtubs have been turned into chairs, ironing boards into tables, and toilets have become pots with flowers growing out of them. There is colour everywhere you look. On the whole, it’s a really quirky, fun experience. 

Bathtub chair - Havana, Cuba

- Fusterlandia

José Fuster started covering his home and studio with mosaics in the mid-1970s. From there it spread out into the neighbourhood and blossomed into a tourist attraction, creating business for others too. The entire area looks like it’s been covered by murals that have shattered. The artist’s home is the centrepiece. It seems as though he ran out of the surface area for mosaics a while ago and has had to resort to sculpture so that he can cover more things with tile fragments. Access is free. Many local artists sell their work nearby.

Mosaic-covered neighborhood - Havana Cuba

- Muraleando

I haven’t actually been to Murealeando but I have heard good things. As its title implies, it as an area known for its murals.

You can buy souvenirs 

Just to be sure, buy them from people selling things out of their homes and not from any stores that look too official.

You can go to the Tropicana Club cabaret

Good news: Havana’s famous cabaret seems to be privately owned. I don’t really understand how an establishment like this has not been taken over by the government, but according to Wikipedia, it has an owner. Together with the fact that cruise ship guests went there on organised excursions under the people-to-people category, I believe that an experience like this is ethical.

Cuban showgirls at the tropicana

This iconic outdoor theatre opened on New Year’s Eve in 1939.  Showgirls, opera singers, lights, costumes and stunts are presented on two main stages and all around the audience. As someone who has been privileged enough to witness it, to call it a spectacle is an understatement. It is an experience not to be missed. And you don’t have to!


I wanted to write this blog months ago but, because I wasn’t 100% sure of all the facts, I didn’t want to spread any misinformation. I so hoped that someone else would write this article but after several months and a number of google searches, it seems no one else has. In light of the recent law change, I felt that I needed to share whatever information I do have. If any of this is incorrect, please correct me? If you have more information that may be useful to future visitors please let us know in the comment section below?

Any comments of an overtly political or argumentative nature will be removed. 

For more Sharonicles of Cuba, click here.

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