February 21, 2008
Tourism 'golden era' ends in Cuba
Travellers interested in visiting Cuba are being advised to go now
before an invasion of American tourists begins
Tour operators believe that the US travel embargo of Cuba could be
lifted in the wake of this week's announcement that Fidel Castro is
stepping down – ending a "golden era" of tourism to the Caribbean island.
Companies say that Castro's departure is likely to combine with a more
open approach to the island after November's presidential elections.
This could bring an end to the US travel ban. The embargo has been in
place since Castro took charge in an armed revolution 49 years ago and
introduced communism. The effect has been to keep mainstream
Westernisation out of the country.
But this week each of the main Amertican presidential contenders –
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain – said that they would
consider a softer approach towards Cuba, but only if political prisoners
Obama said that the US "must be prepared to begin taking steps to
normalise relations and to ease the embargo of the past five decades".
News of Castro's departure on Tuesday had an immediate effect on tour
operators, with people booking trips to see the country before it
changes. "It's been mad," said John Faithfull, of Trips Worldwide, a
Cuba specialist. Bookings with the company have risen by a third since
Castro's last public appearance 19 months ago.
"It looks likely that the embargo will be reviewed and relaxed under a
new US president. It's not a question of that happening immediately, but
it could happen in a year or two," he said. "When the embargo is over,
I'm not sure where Cuba will find the beds to accommodate its new guests."
Cheapflights.co.uk reported that searches for Cuba have increased
eight-fold this year compared with last, with 43,984 enquiries. This
week it was attracting as many as 900 website hits a day.
A spate of new five-star hotel openings, some in former colonial
mansions, is already attracting more upmarket tourists. The Saratoga in
Havana, the capital, the Iberostar Grand Hotel in Trinidad, and Royal
Hideaway in Ensenachos have been especially popular.
Vesella Baleva, product manager for Cuba at Cox & Kings, said: "The end
of the embargo would make it touristy. There's a charm now as it's not
crowded with Americans. These are the golden years."
Virgin Atlantic began flying to Cuba in 2005 and holiday bookings
increased by a fifth last year. Cheapest fortnight packages cost as
little as £871 from Cosmos Holidays.