Cuba gears up for tourist influx as US relations improve
By Will Grant
BBC News, Havana
3 May 2015
It is not hard to see why Cuba is so popular with tourists.
The music, fine cigars, rum and pristine beaches have enticed visitors
to the island since before the Cuban Revolution.
Add the 1950s cars gliding through the streets of one of the last
communist strongholds in the world, Cuba boasts something unique in the
international tourism market: that intangible stamp of “authenticity”
which so many visitors demand.
Today, even though the diplomatic ice between the United States and Cuba
is melting fast, Washington’s decades-old travel ban on US citizens
visiting the communist island is still officially in place.
But in the minds of many US tourists, the ban is no longer worth the
paper it is written on.
“I really don’t care whether I’m breaking the law in their eyes”, says
David, a musician from Illinois who is on his second trip to Cuba in 10
years without the right paperwork.
“I thought it was a ridiculous and arbitrary rule in the first place.”
Every day, more Americans feel equally emboldened to visit the
once-forbidden island, particularly after seeing their president sit
down with Raul Castro for historic talks at a regional summit in Panama.
To them, it seems unfair, even illogical, to ban travel to a country you
are on increasingly friendly terms with.
Traditionally, US citizens who travel to Cuba illegally do so via
Mexico, Canada or the Bahamas.
But since December, travel visas for Americans have been more readily
available in 12 key categories, from cultural and religious exchanges to
Furthermore, many US visitors have simply lost their fear of being fined
by the US government if they travel to Cuba without prior approval.
Charter flights to Havana from New Orleans and New York have begun and
companies like MasterCard and AirBnB have announced plans to operate on
The result is an unprecedented rise in demand for flights and accommodation.
One New York tour operator told the Associated Press recently that its
bookings to Cuba had jumped by almost 250% in March alone.
It is a trend echoed by travel agent Mayra Crespo of the
California-based Marimar Tours.
“The best word is hope”, she says as she accompanies a group of American
classic car enthusiasts to the island.
“I’ve never seen such excitement. They’re waiting for us, they want us
here, and my job is to be the bridge.”
As a Cuban-American who left the country as a child, Ms Crespo says
people like her are uniquely placed to take advantage of the expansion
in Cuban tourism.
“My generation doesn’t have the same anger [towards the Castro
government] as our parents did. I want to be able to help Cuba, to be
part of the solution.”
Of course, the key question at this stage is whether the country’s
ageing tourist infrastructure can cope with such a sharp spike in visitors.
The number of US visitors – 600,000 annually, a figure that includes
many Cuban-Americans visiting relatives – is expected to rise further.
The number of non-US tourists could also double over the same period.
There is a palpable sense of urgency among some European and Canadian
tourists to try and experience Cuba “before the Americans arrive”.
The Cuban government says it has prepared for the boom with an airport
expansion plan and new luxury hotels under construction in both Havana
and popular beach resorts like Varadero.
“We all have to get ready, little by little”, says Alfredo Lachos, the
general manager of the luxury Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana.
“Our brand has been working for years to prepare for an expansion like
this. I think we’re ready.”
But it is already getting difficult to find available rooms in the
hotels or reserve tables at popular restaurants – particularly during
“There’s no room at the inn”, jokes Lucy Davies, a British tour operator
with Cubania travel, which specialises in cycling holidays.
“If you don’t have your hotel rooms booked in advance, you may have to
make do with something else.”
If the state-run hotels cannot cope with the boom, there are plenty of
people willing to step into the breach.
Thousands of private homes offering bed and breakfast – known as casas
particulares – have cropped up since Raul Castro began to relax the
rules on private enterprises a few years ago.
As AirBnB also enters the Cuban market, that may help alleviate the
But the website assumes one key thing – that the homeowner has access to
the Internet – which, in Cuba, is not always the case.
For decades, Cuba has been a country of movement and migration.
Now it seems the tide of people leaving the island may be replaced by
waves of tourists visiting it instead.
Source: Cuba gears up for tourist influx as US relations improve – BBC
News – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-32485823