Simon Calder: Mayday - insure your travels to the axis of risk

The man who pays his way

Fidel Castro enjoys my gratitude for providing, indirectly, my first flight. At the height of the Cuba Missile Crisis, my parents concluded that living adjacent to the runway at Gatwick placed us squarely in the frontline were the Cold War to heat up into conflagration between East and West. So we flew to Guernsey to dodge the ICBMs and eat lots of ice-cream.

Since then, I have visited Castro's island many times – a travel habit that has caused me little but trouble. One sweaty afternoon two decades ago, I checked out of El Salvador and crossed the bridge to Honduras. Border officials spotted an entry stamp to the last Communist nation in the West. They proposed two unappetising solutions: to pay $500 to be taken through Honduras to the Nicaraguan border with an armed escort, or to return whence I had arrived. The former was financially impossible (and, besides, turning up in the custody of the Honduran military at a frontier might not be a wise move). So I headed back to San Salvador, cursing the allure of the Caribbean's largest island.

Even this week I had a tricky Cuba-related experience, in the less clammy surroundings of Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly, central London. The reason: from today (International Labour Day), Cuba takes the revolutionary step of demanding proof of adequate travel insurance from every new arrival: "Travellers shall present a policy, insurance certificate or travelling assistance card valid for the timespan they will stay in Cuba," insists the island's foreign ministry.

As far as I know, this is the first time any nation has stipulated that tourists must be properly insured. And, bizarrely, the first popular tourist destination to demand proof of insurance is the only one that is excluded from many standard travel policies.

That was why I was in Boots. Eighteen months ago, I revealed how the chain's promise to "Take care of you on holiday" did not apply to travellers to Cuba. I needed to check the in-house travel insurance policy to see if the island is still off-limits.

"Try prescriptions," I was advised by one staff member. The pharmacist couldn't oblige, and urged me to try the photo-developing desk. Not there. Eventually I found the insurance section squeezed between sunglasses (which seemed appropriate) and cold-sore cream (which didn't). "No cover is provided under these policies for any trip in, to or through Afghanistan, Cuba, Liberia or Sudan," I read.

Can a sensible retailer such as Boots seriously place Cuba on the axis of risk, one of the quartet of most dangerous countries in the world? No. The reason the island is off-limits is because the company's policies are underwritten by Chartis. This firm is part of AIG, the US insurance giant. America's Trading with the Enemy Act prohibits US firms dealing with Cuba, which includes settling bills for British holidaymakers' medical treatment. But now that insurance is as essential as a passport for visitors to the island, in the words of V I Lenin, "What is to be done?".

Either you buy insurance from one of the many providers who take a more realistic view of risk. Or turn up and buy cover at the airport. "A policy of insurance and assistance" costs two convertible Cuban pesos a day, which translates to £20 for a fortnight in convertible sterling.

I suspect the mandatory insurance rule may be less to do with a surfeit of uninsured holidaymakers than a new way to extract hard currency, in addition to the tourist card (£15) and departure tax (£20). But other Caribbean islands are available; and with BA Holidays offering one-week trips to some of them for under £500 (see page 10), Fidel could be taking a risk on future tourism.

Tourism: the nation's saviour?

"Only tourism can save Cuba," declared Fidel Castro when the USSR disappeared, along with subsidies worth $10 a day for each Cuban citizen. Restoring human rights and democracy, thus ending the US embargo, might have done a better job. But el camino correcto, "the right path", according to el presidente, was to lure sun-and-rum-starved Brits by the jet-load. The economy was duly saved.

In the final days of our election campaign, could tourism save Britain? Not according to the Labour Party, whose manifesto does not even mention the word. The only time "tourism" appears in the Lib Dem manifesto is in a phrase about the arts.

The highest-profile use of the word is in the Tory manifesto, but in a context that has nothing to do with travel. It appears in a promise about legal reform, seeking to "discourage libel tourism". One hard-pressed executive I mentioned this to said "Frankly, I'll settle for any kind of tourism".

Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
filmDheepan, film review
Sport
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
sport
News
Tattoo enthusiast Cammy Stewart poses for a portrait during the Great British Tattoo Show
In picturesThe Great British Tattoo Show
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?