Simon Calder: Cuba as risky as Darfur? Don't make me laugh

Saturday 22 November 2008 01:00 GMT

Travel, like life in general, requires judicious risk management, ranging from "Am I a strong enough swimmer to cope with those currents?" and "Should I really have that extra drink?" to "What countries are too dangerous to contemplate?"

Travel insurance companies have to exercise good judgement about risk, so they can offer plenty of advice on that last question. For example, Direct Travel Insurance Services has recently deemed four nations to be so dangerous that "we made a corporate underwriting decision to exclude coverage for travel in, to, or through such countries".

So, who are the forbidden four? Three of them have reputations as hotspots, with widespread lawlessness and violence prevailing: Afghanistan, Liberia and Sudan. And the fourth: my old favourite, Cuba.

Yes, the Caribbean's largest island is currently so dangerous that a large travel insurer is refusing to cover British holidaymakers who go there. Direct Travel is happy for its policyholders to visit turbulent nations such as Colombia and Indonesia; yet the historic heart of Havana, the tobacco plantations of Pinar del Rio and the beach at Varadero are deemed to be in the same risk category as Helmand in Afghanistan and Darfur in Sudan.

Why should an island that welcomes hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers every year suddenly find itself consigned to the danger zone? For the answer, Direct Travel referred me to its parent company, AIG, which recently took over the insurer. The company told me it decided earlier this year "that the risks arising from the continued provision of cover under our travel policies in respect of destinations such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Liberia and Sudan were unacceptably high at the present time".

It seemed only diplomatic to call the Foreign Office and warn them that, according to a travel insurer that issues 2 million policies a year in Britain, the last bastion of communism in the West poses "unacceptably high" risks to holidaymakers.

The press officer I spoke to in the news department had just himself returned from a holiday in Cuba, miraculously unscathed. He kindly put me on to Matthew Forbes, the Foreign Office man with one of the best job titles on the planet: Head of Mexico, Central America, Cuba and Hispaniola. It's fair to say he was sceptical about Direct Travel's characterisation of Cuba as too risky to cover: "Our travel advice doesn't recommend against travel there. Large numbers of British travellers go there every year. It's certainly not a dangerous destination."

Ironically, about the most strident thing the official travel advice for Cuba says is: "We strongly recommend that you obtain comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling." But not from Direct Travel.

All the data I can see, from sources such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization, concurs with Forbes' judgement. With excellent health care and a low crime rate, Cuba is a very benign place compared with others in the region. So why the sudden decision to downgrade it? One former Direct Travel policyholder, Alasdair Gibson, believes the move was triggered by the takeover: "As an American company, AIG is in effect seeking to extend to its British customers the legal ban on travel to Cuba that applies to all American citizens, and is acting as an agent of the US administration." He calls this "a monstrous interference in the workings of the UK-based travel insurance industry – and an affront to all like me who have been clients of Direct Travel since long before its takeover by AIG."

"We are sorry that your reader is dissatisfied with the situation," says AIG. I was keen to find out what the company knows about Cuba that the rest of the insurance industry, not to mention leading international agencies, do not. I also wanted to know if AIG was lobbying the Foreign Office and bodies such as Abta to make them aware of the risks, pointing out that a holiday in Havana was as fraught with danger as a city break in Kabul. This is the company's response, in its entirety:

"If travellers have questions about holiday destinations, there are a variety of sources available for consultation, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the internet. We evaluate risks using different criteria and parameters and this information is proprietary to AIG." In other words: we're not saying.

Esta is OK, says US Embassy

This month I highlighted the new rules for visiting America that require you to register, online, before departure in order to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

But Philip Breeden, press counsellor at the US Embassy, says: "I would take issue with your characterisation of the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (Esta) program as one imposing hardships on travellers to the United States. This modern, automated system enhances the security of the VWP. The Esta program only requires the same information currently needed for the paper I-94W form that VWP travellers routinely fill out en route to the US. Once approved, travel authorisations are valid for two years or until the traveller's passport expires."

I also noted that outside firms were seeking to charge fees. Susan McFadden writes: "The US Embassy in London, perhaps in response to your column on Esta rip-offs, has posted on its website: 'There is NO charge to submit a registration under Esta! Companies charging a fee for this service are NOT operating on behalf of the US Government.'"

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