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".
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