Travel: Simon Calder Column

A US citizen who spends cash in Cuba without a licence can receive a 10-year prison sentence
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The Independent Culture
"HAD WE not been the world's greatest optimists, we would not have gone on" - not the words of a passenger on Virgin Trains, but the revolutionary recollections of Fidel Castro. In Havana last night, he and I commemorated (though not together) the 40th anniversary of the triumphant arrival in the Cuban capital of his rebel army, a week after the dictator Batista had fled the country.

Cuba calls itself "The land of miracles". Besides all the true-but-cliched wonders that you could easily come up with about the Caribbean's largest and most entrancing island, here are a few more that the traveller here may marvel at: that it is possible to weld together several bits of Lada saloons to create a stretched limousine in this last bastion of Marxism- Leninism; that the last country to join the Soviet bloc has survived the collapse of all its ideological soulmates; and that it took until this week for the United States to begin to ease the ineffectual economic stranglehold on Cuba, whose main victims have been its Cuban citizens.

British travellers are more fortunate than we often realise. For a start, anyone deciding to depart the UK by sea can get a passport within weeks - and a heavily subsidised ticket across the Channel. Those who hope to leave Cuba across the Florida Straits have missed the raft; risking life and limb on the treacherous stretch of water to Key West no longer automatically results in US citizenship. We are luckier, too, than the average American, who is banned from travelling to the closest overseas country by order of his or her own government. Anyone who spends cash in Cuba without previously obtaining a special licence is liable to receive a 10-year prison sentence.

This week, a beleaguered Bill Clinton agreed to increase the number of flights between Miami and Havana. For a decade, these have been known as ghost flights; unlike almost any other flight in the world, they cannot be booked direct with the airline and instead you are told to turn up at a distant corner of Miami airport with a wad of cash. I have tried this, and it works, though a return fare of pounds 150 for a half-hour flight is extortionate.

Before being allowed to board, British travellers have to sign a piece of paper to promise not to be Americans. The airlines that have benefited from this curious arrangement include Mexicana and Haitian TransAir, brought in as uncontentious third-party carriers - the island's national airline, Cubana, being planae non gratae. Now, though, the skies over Havana are alive with the sight of United Airlines jets, with other US carriers set to follow.

For British travellers, the long-term benefit is likely to mean much easier access to Cuba. A two-centre holiday combining thrilling-but-artificial Florida fun parks with the intense and entirely human excitement of Cuba sounds logical, but for the last four decades such a trip has been inadmissible. When (or, perhaps, that should be a very big "if") Fidel Castro celebrates his half-century in charge, Britain's biggest tour operator to Florida - Virgin Holidays - will be offering Mickey Mouse-meets-Marxism vacations. But perhaps I'm being too optimistic.

HAVANA WAS the place where the International Air Transport Association was founded; in 1945, as the world emerged from war, the airlines gathered at the Hotel Nacional to form a cartel. Such is the state of the Cuban economy that many of the aircraft in the island look as though they were around to ferry the original delegates. Yet just as the lumbering old pre-Revolutionary Buicks and Cadillacs have bestowed chic on the Cuban capital, so, too, has the ageing fleet of aircraft acquired a certain appeal to tourists. The Aerotaxi enterprise does not hire out executive jets; instead, it operates a fleet of single-engined Soviet biplanes. Places on these aircraft are popular with day-tripping tourists, who arrived on aircraft equipped with the latest "fly-by-wire" technology and wish to experience some retro "fly-with-wire" aviation. These eight-seaters fly in formation, and the sight of five of them taking off in sequence is remarkable. If you prefer a bit more comfort (but not much), you may be pleased to learn that the authorities have decided to upgrade their tourist fleet by purchasing a DC-3 for use on day trips.