HAVANA — I am traveling on a Friendly Planet people-to-people program, but this one has a different twist. This is the first fam trip for travel agents offered by Friendly Planet. I am with a group of 28 agents from all over the U.S, veteran agents who have been in the business for years and are on this trip because their clients want to come to Cuba."It's intriguing. I'm very curious. There's so much interest in Cuba these days. I want to see Cuba so I can speak knowledgeably to my clients before I send them here," said Ellen Paderson, Smiles and Miles Travel in South Easton, Mass.
None of the agents have been here before. I was last here two years ago on a similar program for regular travelers operated by Insight Cuba.
After going through Customs and Immigration at the airport, showing our Cuban visas and being photographed ("Don't smile," I was told), we set off on a large, air-conditioned motorcoach for Old Havana, full of cobblestone streets; crumbling mansions; large, open plazas with cafes and music; and schoolchildren in uniform crowding the streets when classes let out.
A crane is a symbol of progress in restoration of old buildings in Havana. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
True, the ironwork railings and ornate facades are crumbling on many of the buildings, but I also see signs of progress in historical buildings that have been beautifully restored by a government agency called City Historians.
Ari, our Havana-born guide, reminded us that "all of Cuba is an open-air museum of architecture, old cars, history and now change. We are going through big change now."
At the government-run Cafe del Oriente restaurant for a midafternoon lunch, the owner presented us with a welcome cocktail of pineapple juice and Havana rum, followed by a salmon appetizer and a main course of either chicken, fish, pasta or beef.
"Salut, amor, dinero," he said as he raised a glass in the traditional Cuban toast, meaning Health, Love and Money.
Later, in a meeting room at the Melia Cohiba, where we are staying for two nights, we were treated to a fast-paced presentation on Cuban history, politics, economics and life by Jorge Mario Sanchez, a professor at the University of Havana.
A typical '50s car in Havana. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
"Tourism here is still forbidden for U.S. citizens. Americans must come as visitors on oriented activities due to political-legal restrictions. We in Cuba are facing an onslaught of tourists and full normalization which, when it comes, will bring up to 1 million Americans a year. We have an overqualified labor force; we turn out excellent doctors and lawyers, but we need trained hospitality workers," he said.
"To find out what the Cubans think about politics and the climate of change, talk to the taxi drivers. They are our top political advisers and observers," Sanchez said.
Still later, dinner at the privately run Cameron restaurant a few blocks from the hotel was evidence of another recent change: 390 privately run restaurants have opened in Cuba in the past year.
A busy first day in Cuba. I can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring.