Experience Old Havana with the help of redefined travel agency Conscious Cuba.
Vintage cars line the streets in Havana.
Enjoy your stay at historic luxury hotel Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
One of Harrison’s favorite Cuban artists, Kamyl Bullaudey, works in his home studio.
Explore Cuba’s Viñales tobacco region.
HOW’S THIS FOR A MODERN-DAY FAIRY-TALE: GIRL STUDIES ABROAD IN CUBA. GIRL FALLS IN LOVE WITH CUBA – AND WITH A FELLOW STUDENT (A CUBAN) WHO WOULD EVENTUALLY BECOME HER HUSBAND. GIRL STARTS A THRIVING BUSINESS IN AN EFFORT TO OPEN DIALOGUE BETWEEN CUBANS AND AMERICANS.
For Francis Harrison, the granddaughter of Dallas philanthropist and oil heiress Caroline Rose Hunt, that has been the plot since she first landed on Cuba in 2009. A study-abroad program through the College of Charleston brought her there, and four years later, in 2013, she founded Conscious Cuba. The redefined travel agency creates custom, culture-focused trips to Cuba, which, from 1961 until early 2015, had been stringently regulated via embargoes and broken diplomacy.
“I always say Conscious Cuba was founded out of love, for love,” Harrison says. “My ultimate goal was to bring North Americans and Cubans together, to have dialogue after 54 years of isolation.”
Today, Harrison, who splits her time between Havana and Dallas, can’t count the number of trips she has made to Cuba. (“Probably close to 150,” she says. “I spend a good amount of time there.”) And business is booming. At first, travel groups mainly consisted of Texans — friends, family, connections or mutual acquaintances — but now people are tapping Conscious Cuba from all over, with significant interest from travelers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
In May alone, Conscious Cuba made nearly 20 trips — impressive, considering this is typically the company’s slowest season. The draw is in the genuine, edifying experiences that each trip offers.
“Cuba, in terms of culture, stands on its own,” Harrison says. “The music. The food. The art … I have lived with the Cuban people. I know the artists, musicians and farmers personally. For many, I was the first American they met.”
In other words, a Conscious Cuba itinerary — each is customized based on the traveler or group’s interests — is not hands-off. Instead, talking to locals, engaging with artists and experiencing the country on an everyday level is not just encouraged, it’s a rule. This notion is based on Harrison’s experience.
“Before I went to study there,” she says, “I had mentally prepared myself to go to an island where people would hate me because of the embargo. But I was pleasantly surprised. The biggest challenge was my own ideas. You have to get a more authentic view — not what you’ve seen in movies, or what you’ve read in books — an on-the-ground experience to be able to translate it all.”
Translating the long-isolated Communist country with its divisive and contentious history is, for an American audience, more relevant than ever.
“I was in the country in December 2016,” she recalls, “when Obama and Raul [Castro] were on TV saying they were going to reestablish diplomatic ties. I can’t tell you how many people called me. How many of my Cuban neighbors came over and gave me a hug. It was pretty epic … Even the Pope coming down and being able to talk to people without being censored; things are happening that we never expected to happen.”
Conscious Cuba and Harrison’s emphasis on showing newcomers the country’s culture in its most authentic state could not be timelier. Last month, Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld staged the French fashion house’s Resort 2016 collection in Cuba, attracting mixed reviews of praise and criticism. In late March, The Rolling Stones held a historic free concert at Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva, drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees. (For years, rock music was banned from the country.)
Even Conscious Cuba is taking a more active role in the cultural exchange. In December 2015, Harrison took Dannijo jewelry designers and sisters Jodie Snyder and Danielle Snyder to Cuba as part of the research they did for their latest collection, which the duo dedicated to the country.
“They wanted to make sure what they designed accurately depicted Cuba,” Harrison says. “So we did a trip and introduced them to the grass-roots Cuban culture.”
The trip left a lasting impact. To celebrate, fashion designer and Dallas native Lela Rose hosted a dinner honoring the collection and Conscious Cuba last month in her New York City town home.
Conscious Cuba recently launched a sister business, Conscious Cultures, which features custom cultural-immersion trips to Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. As for Cuba, Harrison hopes attention and tourism will result in increased access to information, worldwide banking and staple goods for the local people.
“Cuban culture is strong,” she says. “Tourism will affect the private sector more than the culture. You’ll see the private sector open up and, hopefully, individual spending power will increase.”
There’s also the next generation of Cubans to consider.
“The new Cuba is very interested in what is going on in the rest of the world,” she says. “They just recently got limited internet access. They’re interested in social media. And they want to work toward something that has meaning.”
Time will tell. For now, Harrison is also looking forward to her personal future. Her first child is due this summer — the first grandchild for her American parents and her Cuban in-laws.
“There will be no third-trimester trip to Cuba,” she laughs. “My next trip will be in October.”