Cuba libre: what the US moves mean for you

The man who drinks rum all day

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The Independent Travel

President Obama intends to be the US leader who kissed and made up with Cuba. Since he announced closer ties with the Castro regime, the genie is out of the bottle of Havana Club rum.

In the 1950s Cuba was hugely popular with Americans, but when the economic embargo began in 1960, tourism was an immediate casualty. For half a century, Americans have been forbidden by the Trading with the Enemy Act from taking vacations in Castro's republic.

The most significant effects of scrapping sanctions against the communist island are on travel. An end to America's incredible sulk will transform the tourism geography of the Caribbean.

When the US president symbolically travels to Havana, as doubtless he soon will, you can bet that the Cubans will ensure the historic handshake with President Raul Castro takes place against a backdrop that shows the capital at its dazzling best. The unspoken message to the 300 million Americans denied access to the island by Washington: Welcome to Cuba.

Don't panic; there's no need to book on Virgin's Christmas Day Jumbo from Gatwick to Havana (though flight VS63 has plenty of empty seats). Here's how I believe events will unfold.

Cuba opened up to mass tourism in the 1990s, as the Soviet Union's collapse left the island almost destitute. Since then, it has become the preserve of Europeans, Latin Americans and Canadians. Most travellers are on package holidays, for which Cuba offers excellent value (albeit with the risk of the odd power or water failure, traditionally blamed on the US embargo). Yet my most rewarding trips have been independent.

Visitors are free to travel more or less anywhere except into the US base at Guantanamo Bay. You can stay where you like – including, on a budget, in casas particulares (private houses). Red tape is minimal, comprising a tourist card that is issued with little formality.

Begin in the capital: Havana is by far the largest and most fascinating city in the Caribbean. Then explore more widely. From the strange limestone landscapes in the west, you can travel via a succession of exquisite colonial towns and through rugged hills to the tranquil far east. Cuba is very safe, very friendly and – compared with other Caribbean nations – very inexpensive.

Only a few categories of US citizens are currently allowed to travel to Cuba, such as those with family there, plus journalists and charity workers. Tens of thousands of ordinary Americans visit clandestinely each year, travelling via Mexico, the Bahamas or Canada. But they face problems with everything from spending (US credit cards cannot be used, and using dollars is subject to a special tax) to misadventure; since they are not officially in Cuba, life gets tricky if they are victims of crime or fall ill.

President Obama stopped short of opening the floodgates, but he has extended the categories of people able legally to visit Cuba in such a way that almost any trip will qualify. A journey to the island is certainly an "educational activity", and it will provide "support for the Cuban people" – two of the permitted motives. Travel agents in Florida will quickly put together packages that can be sold to any American. And the nonsense whereby US-owned websites such as Expedia must pretend that Cuba does not exist will end. Right now, you'll search in vain for Virgin's London-Havana flight at expedia.co.uk.

The red channel

Can the travel industry – and the island – cope with the surge in demand? It depends on how many newly liberated US citizens decide to sign up, and what sort of vacations they demand.

If it's a trickle of individuals who find the idea of visiting a communist country fascinating then it's easy. There are already dozens of charter flights each week between America and Cuba, mainly from Miami. They cater for family visits, but will have seats for a few tourists. And thanks to the widespread availability of private accommodation, there's no chronic shortage of beds. But if pressure builds for chic city breaks in Havana or beachside vacations at resorts such as Varadero and Guardalavaca, the shortcomings of the infrastructure will quickly become apparent. Then a bidding war begins for everything from sunbeds on the beach to landing slots at Havana's single-runway airport.

If you have the good fortune to have a holiday booked in Cuba, don't worry. You are sure to be travelling in the next 12 months, during which not much will change. The tourism ministry will ensure all existing contracts are honoured through the winter and into the summer season.

Besides, while mad dogs and Englishmen are quite prepared to visit Caribbean islands in the hot, humid hurricane season, Americans tend to stay away. So they won't be booking by the million for trips between June and November.

A Caribbean revolution

By December 2015, the island's tourism assets will start to be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be the US. As Cuba welcomes millions of people from its nearest neighbour, it will change. Yet so deep runs its character that I see no danger of unfettered Americanisation.

Until now, US citizens who want a tropical island holiday have been obliged to fly over, or sail around, Cuba. They have to spend extra time and money travelling to less alluring destinations. That's why the president's announcement triggered dismay from Aruba to Anguilla.

If Americans forsake lesser islands for cheap, close and cheerful Cuba, that spare capacity will need other buyers. So get ready for the Caribbean to be turned upside-down in travel terms. The low-cost revolution is about to begin.

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