For more than 50 years American airlines have been banned from flying to Cuba because of Washington’s strict embargo against commercial dealings with its Communist foe.
But now there are hopes that the sanctions could be eased – and direct flights resume – thanks to a deal between Sir Richard Branson’s airline and the American carrier, Delta.
Virgin Atlantic is currently 49 per cent owned by Singapore Airlines. Delta, the world’s biggest carrier, is bidding for that stake. If and when almost half the airline becomes US-owned, Virgin will continue with its thrice-weekly jumbo jet from Gatwick to Cuba. A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic said: “We have no plans to cancel flying to Havana”.
At Delta’s Atlanta headquarters, the planned minority ownership of an airline serving Cuba is not regarded as an issue according to a spokesman for the airline. The confidence that the Virgin’s Havana connection will continue has led to speculation that the Obama administration is preparing to ease the long-standing embargo.
Chris Parrott, director of the specialist travel firm, Journey Latin America, said: “One would imagine that Delta has spoken to people in power rather than just going ahead on a commercial basis”. Trying to book a flight to Havana on a US-owned website is currently either frustrating or amusing, depending on your degree of impatience. When you tap in “Havana” as your destination, Travelocity.co.uk instructs “Verify the location is a valid airport or city”.
Neither does Expedia.co.uk recognise the Cuban capital, offering 10 alternatives airports “with a similar name” – all of them scattered across the state of Hawaii.
The sanctions are so restrictive that Boots travel insurance, which is underwritten by an American-owned company, does not cover British visitors to Cuba. And at one stage the giant tour operator, Thomson, abandoned its entire UK-Cuba programme because of fears that its directors might be barred from the USA.
Neil Taylor, who pioneered travel to Cuba in the 1970s for Regent Holidays, said two-centre holidays comprising the island and Florida would appeal to British travellers: “Miami and the Florida Keys, would offer a total contrast to Cuba. Boat travel would be the way to approach Havana – and then the 1950s will have well and truly returned.
“Ernest Hemingway can perhaps be seen as the pioneer for such a sojourn, having kept a house in Key West and Havana. Both are now museums.”