Arkansas' governor plays baseball in Cuba's largest stadium, Mick Jagger poses next to cars older than him, Anne Leivobitz photographs a naked Rihanna in a run-down neighbourhood, Katy Perry sings along with a group of Cuba's youngest (and tiniest) actors, Floyd Mayweather Jr. gets snapped up in an open-air underground gym of Havana and Julio Iglesias reveals that – why not? – he would like to record a CD of boleros in Havana. And "Oh la la", Chanel just very recently announced it will convert Havana into a public runway to present their latest Cruise 16/17 collection in early May 2016.
All of a sudden Cuba is fashionable. Everyone wants to come and discover a city that seems taken out of a colourful vintage postcard, from celebrities to politicians and businessmen, they're all finally crossing the long bridge that first started to open on 17th December last year, when Washington and Havana finally agreed it was time to get along like good neighbours. And it seems only the red carpet is missing now, because celebrities are lining up like ants, setting foot in the island one after the other.
Some might think that this phenomenon started nearly three years ago, when Jay-Z and Beyonce first arrived in Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, but the truth is that from much earlier, many international figures came to the island, seduced by the aroma of Habanos and other tropical cliches. A quick glance over the walls of the famous La Guarida paladar in Centro Habana provides telling evidence that Cuba has been an intriguing destination for quite some time. But something's changed now...
Celebrities and public figures
Cubans love the world of showbiz, so they're all the more excited when Paris Hilton takes selfies in Old Havana, or when Usher and Ludacris jump up on a local stage to rap and attempt at phrasing some Cuban slang. But many other music heavyweights have left their mark here, including rock band The Dead Daisies or drummer Questlove from The Roots.
On top of this everyone's now talking about the upcoming concert of Rolling Stones next March, as well as other international performances from artists like Stevie Wonder and Sting, who, by the way, has already been to Cuba and toured the island a few years ago but on a private visit that went completely under the radar. ZZ Top's leading guitarist, Billy Gibbons, recently launched a CD with the collaboration of various acclaimed Cuban musicians, and he now wants to introduce this latest release on Cuba's jazz scene. And like him, many others have followed suit.
In the sporting world, beyond the more recent visit of "Money" Mayweather Jr., many other sports starts have been seen touching down in Havana's International Jose Marti Airport. From the likes of New York's Cosmos football team, accompanied by "O Rei" Pele and Carmelo Anthony, the basketball star from NBA's New York Nicks to Real Madrid player, Sergio Ramos who went on a short visit as a UN Goodwill Ambassador promising to come back soon. And speaking about the NBA; they once sent a basketball delegation led by Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutombo, with the goal of opening up the dialogue between Cuban players and paving the way for future collaborations.
Now on top of all these figures from the sports world, more are announcing a soon arrival in Cuba. Penn State Baseball will soon play the Cuban national baseball team when they arrive next month while similarly, Mexican football club, Santos Laguna will be playing a historic match in Havana against Cuba's national team on 14th November 2014. Why, they're practically step-toeing on each other to get there!
Lots of politicians and a Pope
In the politics world, many examples abound of the growing interest in visiting Cuba. The re-opening of the U.S. Embassy brought U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry along (the first dignitary of his position to step foot in the island in over 70 years),and soon after U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker followed, becoming the second U.S. cabinet official to visit the island since the process of re-establishing ties began. To this, end, a long line of presidents, prime ministers and chancellors have gathered in Cuba to meet with the island's leading governmental authorities, preparing for what's to come ahead...
Included in this avalanche was the visit of Pope Francis, as charismatic and approachable as ever, who managed to move and inspire even Cuba's most sceptic atheists for his views of a more compassionate humankind. The visit stole headlines, not least of all due to the fact that, as someone of Latin American origin, he was a key contributor and intermediary between the U.S. – Cuba rapprochement – something that many Cubans were praying for, with more desperate hope than faith.
What do Cubans think of this sudden popularity?
At least for now, Cubans are amused and entertained by this popularity boost and fashionable phenomenon: the general belief is that we belong to a past relic that tourists want to experience while it lasts...Many joke and speculate about a visit from President Obama, saying they expect him to arrive at any point soon, while the real question on everyone's lips is: who is next?
When any of these celebrities is "discovered" on the streets they are showered with an overwhelming thunderstorm of hospitality, greetings, cheers, hugs, kisses, selfies and wide smiles all around. Rihanna stopped traffic on the very busy San Lazaro street in Centro Habana, while "Money" Mayweather walked along San Isidro like a local, and Usher even got married in La Guarida, the afro-Cuban way!
Beyond the jokes and the frivolities, this influx of A-list visitors is perhaps the biggest or at least most visible sign that something is changing in Cuba, and even when salaries, transport and food are still scarce and precarious, there is hope that the panorama is starting to brighten up bit by bit.
Cuba, a galloping destination
The most curious thing about this phenomenon is that Washington still doesn't fully authorise regular tourist trips to Cuba for ordinary U.S. citizens, yet it seems a countdown to the end of the embargo has already begun. All the same, the island is already gearing up to knock off Puerto Rico from its position as the Caribbean's second destination, behind the Dominican Republic.
According to the International Tourist Organisation, Cuba received over 3 million foreign visitors in 2014, and in 2015's first quarter tourism grew 15% compared to the previous year. Likewise, visits from U.S. residents went up by 36% since the announcement of renewed ties between Cuba and the U.S. A good number of them came from Mexico, Canada or Panama - many of them through travel agents and tour operators who are laying the groundwork for a scenario of complete opening.
At present, Canada brings the largest numbers of visitors to Cuba, followed by Europe, but if the embargo were to be completely removed, it is estimated that around three million Americans would be travelling to Cuba each year, whilst an increase from other big markets like the UK is also expected.
Whatever the case, in Cuba, I can assure you, everyone will welcome you with open arms.