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Cuba sees record bookings as tourists rush to see it before it changes

Cuba sees record bookings as tourists rush to see it before it changes

Posted by PanamericanWorld on October 30, 2015

Tour operators around the globe are reporting such high demand for travel to Cuba that hotel rooms in Havana are selling out months in advance, with some agencies unable to offer availability until April 2016.

This has been a historic year for Cuba, with the recent papal visit, not one but two handshakes between US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana, after a five-decade standoff.

Since what US intelligence chief James Clapper described as a “fitting closure to a cold war chapter” on 17 December last year – or D17 as Cubans call it – and the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the countries, tourism has increased exponentially. With talk of floodgates opening next year to US visitors – still limited under the 1961 trade embargo – travellers worldwide have rushed to see the communist country while it retains its unique old-world charm.

Liddy Pleasants, founder of Stubborn Mule Travel, say enquires to Cuba have gone up by 80%: “There’s a real feeling that everyone wants to get there before it changes too much. Not just before the Americans arrive, but that suddenly there will be new imported goods rather than the lovely 1950s and 60s items people still use today.”

According to Cuban tourism minister Manuel Marrero, 2,194,134 people travelled to the Caribbean country in the first part of this year, a 17% increase on 2014. These figures exclude American tourists, also estimated to be up by 36%, as the embargo has already been relaxed to allow US citizens from the fields of research, athletics, the performing arts, education and humanitarian projects.

Put the flags out … a few years ago this would have been regarded as an act of treason in Cuba. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Thanks to this surge in interest, travel agencies have enjoyed record numbers of bookings. UK operator Journey Latin America reserved nearly 4,000 room nights between January and September 2015, compared with 1,000 the previous year.

However, few think Cuba has the infrastructure to support this swell of visitors – not to mention the estimated 10 million Americans who will arrive each year once the travel ban is lifted. ATMs are rare and often empty, and food shortages are common, with restaurants running out of ingredients. Most crucially, there is a lack of hotel accommodation. There are around 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, with some now reportedly fully booked for up to 18 months. There are also an estimated 20,000-plus rooms in casas particulares (private homestays). Many of these however, cannot be booked in advance online and provide only basic amenities – such as a shared bathroom and no internet access.

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba – “pioneers in legal, people-to-people travel” for Americans – said: “Tourism has soared, and the demand for hotel rooms far exceeds capacity. There is no immediate solution for the accommodation crisis they’ll face in the future.” Travel agencies across the board are recommending that holidaymakers book eight to 10 months in advance for the best hotels and tours.

The Cuban government is working towards improving the situation, with 53 investment projects in tourism under way, though some won’t be completed until 2018. The ministry of tourism has also hiked prices across the board for government-run hotels, restaurants, tours and car rentals. Popper said: “They’ve raised prices to try to dampen down the demand. Ironically, it’s not having any effect, so they’re going to raise prices again.”

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