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Bei einer individuellen Oldtimer-Tour Havanna kennenlernen. Bild: Annie Ehringhaus - oldcarshavana.com

Individual classic car tours through Havana

What better way to get to know a foreign city than with a local guide? And what do you think of first when you think of Cuba? That’s right: the Caribbean, cigars and, of course, vintage cars.

A Cuban tourism project offers exactly this wonderful combination: Individual city tours through Havana in a vintage car of your choice. The German-speaking tour guide can be booked directly. And all this at a very reasonable price by German standards.

Now the project has OldCarsHavana.com been awarded the “International Travel Award”. An award that also caused great joy in Germany . It is true that the complete organization of the tours is carried out via the local network. However, the website and the associated clear booking system come from Germany.

We spoke to Oliver Döhring, who is responsible for volunteer project aid on the German side. Oliver Döhring has been a journalist in print, TV and radio for over 30 years. Some will know him from the radio comedy “Der kleine Nils”. He has been traveling to Cuba for 16 years and knows the situation on the ground very well.

Their project “Old Cars Havana” has just won the International Travel Award. Please tell us a little more about your project.

The topic of Cuba started for me with a vacation in 2004. I was a normal vacationer, typical tourist hotel and already on the second day “just lying around by the pool” was just too boring. So my travel companions and I rented a car and we drove to Havana. In the historic old town we were approached by Alejandro, a Cuban tour guide, “if he should show us the city”. We thought “Ok, a local is certainly helpful”, but Alejandro said that we were not interested in the typical tourist entertainment. We wanted to see “country and people” and the real, the real Cuba, with all the possible consequences of seeing unpleasant things.

We had a very relaxed, honest, even silly atmosphere from the first second. In Germany I do radio comedy, I guess you can’t switch it off even on vacation. In short, in addition to everything worth seeing, there was also a lot of laughter. Alejandro stayed by our side every day from that moment on and we saw so much more than a normal tourist in Havana alone. It went so far that he invited us to his almost 80-year-old grandmother, who insisted on drinking rum with me. According to Alejandro, she hadn’t done that for years: “But when such a young, handsome man is a guest at her house, you can make an exception!”. By the way, after the glass she was well tipsy, but told us about half of her (by the way) very exciting life.

In short, I stayed in contact with Alejandro even after the holiday and only 6 months later I came back and went with the rental car across the entire island. We were on the road for a good 2 weeks, every evening somewhere else, always in small private casa’s, cooked by the local families. I have to say, at that time I was professionally stressed. The fact that there was hardly any cell phone reception in Cuba at that time, so I was not always available for everyone, made for a real break. I was literally in another world.

Since then, I have been going exclusively to Cuba on vacation. Guess I fell in love with the country. For me personally, there is no more beautiful place.

In November 2015, new opportunities for Cubans emerged: The communist government decided that Cubans would be allowed to become self-employed from now on. Alejandro had the idea to start a “Classic Car Agency” and asked if I could help him. That’s how it all began.

The following year, the classic car agencies literally sprang up out of the ground. In the meantime, there were over 70 competitors! So the first thing we had to do was a market analysis: What exactly are the others doing, what cars do they have, what tours, what are the others doing well and what can we do differently and better? Without going into too much detail: It was immediately clear to us that we could only establish ourselves if we combined top quality, a top offer and top service. Another advantage was that I know how a holidaymaker thinks and Alejandro knows what is possible on site.

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Alejandro was looking for the best classic cars in Havana and I took care of everything that had to do with internet and marketing. Our portal was launched in July 2017. A special feature, on the European side we work completely on a voluntary basis. Over the years, many friends joined this project, including from the USA. They have helped to translate our pages into different languages and the Business Club Stuttgart provides a lot of support when it comes to the implementation of ideas and marketing.

What makes the tours so special?

Havana
Colorful Havana, Image: YU_M / shutterstock

We try to make Cuba as personal as possible. Of course, we also drive to all tourist hotspots, but it makes a difference whether you learn a lot about the country and its people in addition to the historical data. In any case, our guests were always enthusiastic to learn something about the life and thinking of the Cubans. We also go to places that are usually not visited by tourists. We once organized a whole beach dinner for a wedding couple in a remote Caribbean bay.

Many of our tours were created in the first place because of the “customer interest”. There are many guests who inform themselves very well before the trip and get recommendations in forums. New ideas are always on the table.

But what makes us unbeatable at the moment: We have tour guides for 9 different languages, of course there is also German. All our guides have studied the languages or are even trained teachers for the respective language.

And we have set clear rules for Old Cars Havana: Things like punctuality, clean vehicles, etc. are a matter of course for us. If a tour starts at 10 a.m., our team is often there 10 minutes before.

Is there a tour that you would particularly like to recommend to our readers?

That depends very much on the guest.

If a guest is in Havana for the first time, then I recommend a 3h or 6h city tour: The vacationer gets an overview of the city, the most important places and can ask our guides questions about “tips and places”. So, what can you experience where etc.

If you are only in Havana for one day, then definitely the 6h City Tour.

If you are interested in cigars, you should take a day trip to Vinales or if you love action, you should go to Zapata National Park (Guama/Bay of Pigs).

My favorite tour was to Zapata National Park, where I had a lot of nature, a boat tour and went snorkeling in the Caribbean.

How do the owners actually manage to maintain their cars so well despite the circumstances (salt water, no spare parts)?

There is a joke among drivers: “I take care of my car more than my wife!” – mind you, it’s a joke!! In a perfect Cuban household, the woman is usually the boss.

But it is indeed not easy. On the one hand, repairs are carried out until it is no longer possible. Many cars are also built up by cannibalizing an identical car, i.e. 2 cars become one that drives. In the meantime, however, we also receive real help from classic car fans from all over the world. Small components sometimes come into the country with the holidaymakers.

For the sake of honesty, however, it must also be said that some cars no longer have the original engine under the hood. If it is a newer engine, then usually a “Japanese”, with a few adjusting screws these motors get the sound of the 50s American sleds perfectly. But, the original restorations are (at least in our country) clearly in the majority.

American tourism in Cuba has risen sharply in recent years. Now it is being slowed down by the pandemic and the decisions of the outgoing US government (Info: The US government has put Cuba back on the list of terrorist states a few days ago). What is the current situation on the ground?

American tourism began with the Obama administration’s rapprochement policy. US citizens were able to travel to Cuba under conditions and this created a real tourism boom. This does not only apply to our project: private restaurants opened, clubs, privately run shops (mainly fashion, cosmetics, telecommunications). I know so many families who have used everything they had to take the step into self-employment. We have also helped such projects. For example, the beauty villa in Rostock had given us almost everything you need in a hairdressing salon.

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The first serious turning point came in June 2019 with Trump’s decision to ban travel for US citizens again from “one day to the next”. Then came the Covid pandemic and finally the Trump administration’s decision to put Cuba back on the “terror list.”

Nobody can do anything about Covid-19, but both decisions of the Trump administration are not well received on the ground in Cuba. I’m talking explicitly about the normal people and not about the opinion of the communist government. Trump’s decisions have led to a mass extinction of the many, small private existences. So the decision of the Trump administration has destroyed livelihoods among the normal population for the time being. No one on the island believes that President Trump wants to help “the people of Cuba to more freedom” with his decisions. Worse still, on this issue, even the critical voices among Cubans are once again on the side of their government.

The two years before were impressive for me: With the many US tourists, people came to the country who turned out to be perfect ambassadors for more democracy. Suddenly, Cubans were able to talk and think outside the box, friendships were formed and as a result, Cubans were also expressing their opinions more and more openly. Many things reminded me of the GDR in 1988/89. All of this has been undone by the Trump administration, perhaps the most hopeful time for Cubans.

The current situation is difficult for Cubans. There was also a currency reform that made a lot of goods unaffordable. The pandemic and Trump’s decisions have of course had a massive impact. The Cubans do their best to at least get enough food on the table. Every piece of front garden is used to grow vegetables and they support each other wherever possible. And, like us, they have high hopes for the Biden administration.

Finally, the question: What do you like most about Cuba and are there other destinations that you like to visit?

Havana Classic Car Tour
Fantastic cars in a dreamlike setting, Picture: Picture: Annie Ehringhaus – oldcarshavana.com

Of course, I see Cuba differently today than I did 16 years ago. 16 years ago, it would have remained “Cuba is a sensationally beautiful island and its people are hospitable”. The more often you are there, the more you learn to appreciate it. Of course, Cuba has the best rum in the world, the best cigars and the Cuban lifestyle teaches everyone the term “carefree”. That doesn’t mean Cubans don’t feel problems! But it means that the way we deal with worries is different from ours. Cubans have not lost their lightness, cheerfulness and laughter. I often sat on the plane home and thought “Do I really have problems? Cubans have it so much harder than I do, and yet they laugh more!”

Through the many contacts, I know that Cubans have a very good general education, they are proud of their history and traditions. Conversations are always characterized by curiosity, Cubans learn quickly and they definitely have an idea for their own lives. The young generation in particular is in the starting blocks to use this potential. Sooner or later, there will have to be changes in Cuba.

Before Cuba I traveled half of Europe (Southern Europe pretty much everything), I was in the Maldives or on Koh Samui in Thailand. For me personally, the vastness of Russia would still be interesting, I would like to see the Northern Lights or New Zealand one day. But if it only remains with Cuba, I am certainly not unhappy.

Mr. Döhring, thank you for the interview!

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The gas strut is a typical spare part, e.g. for the tailgate on a car.

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