US-Cuba diplomatic relations could improve even further, news inspires spike in tourism amid fears of Americanisation

Posted: 31-Mar-15 12:22

There is a good chance that diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba could be normalised before the year is out. Where does that leave the Cuban tourist industry, when the island is already proving popular and the numbers of visitors is only getting higher?

US-Cuba diplomatic relations could improve even further, news inspires spike in tourism amid fears of Americanisation

Four months since the announcement that diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba would be normalised, it's emerged that they could be fully restored by April this year. That's if America declares its intention to remove Havana from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as a matter of "priority", according to Cuban official Josefina Vidal of the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Meanwhile, the rush is on to see Cuba now before it becomes, as one tourist put it, "an outpost of Florida". According to New York-based tour operator InsightCuba, bookings jumped Cuba jumped 57% for one New York tour operator in the weeks following the original announcement in December. Since then the numbers continue to climb; in February, they were up 187%; and at the time of writing they had gone up nearly threefold at 250% (all figures are year-on-year from 2014). As a whole, the country has seen tourism increase by 16% on last year – and that was just in January alone.

Plenty of travellers to Cuba share a sense that full normalised relations will mean the island will lose its distinctive character and be overrun by American tourists, and that comes from some American tourists themselves. Of the increased bookings, InsightCuba president Tom Popper reports:

"… a huge surge... Word's gotten out and people are communicating that they want to go before Cuba changes."

Tourists interviewed have expressed admiration of Cuba's "authentic" atmosphere.

Although the island is romanticised as a "time capsule", thanks to the historic architecture, 1950s American cars still chugging along and unspoiled beaches, the locals are eager to see improvement and opportunity. The infrastructure is poor, and unable to support the American companies such as Netflix and American Express looking to set up shop. However, more and more charter flights are going directly to Cuba, meaning that non-US travellers could potentially find themselves with no room at the inns if Americans dominate.

Official Cuban figures put last year's visitors at three million; 600,000 came from the US. That number could easily double if restrictions were lifted, and that's a conservative estimate if numbers are already rising so sharply. In terms of infrastructure, that pushes Cuba to the limit already. Havana's best hotels are fully booked in the December-April high season; private restaurants are also turning away customers.

It's not all doom and gloom for the island; it appears that there's lots of work being done to ensure travellers get a warm welcome. Tourists observe that there's plenty of building going on to help meet demand, and "casas particulares" (privately run B&Bs) and "paladares" (restaurants and dinners) could ease the load.

Fears of a "Yankee" takeover have also been dismissed, with local tour guide Yadiel Carmenate saying that the famous Cuban atmosphere isn't going to be lost so easily.

"It's not going to be that way... Our identity, we will preserve it at all costs."

He proudly explained.


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