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Cuba holidays are major attraction thanks to Arab spring and U.S. reforms

  • 30-Jan-12 16:13
  • Cuba
  • Toronto Sun

Thanks to the recent upheaval in the Middle East, the ammendments made to some U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba and the island's very own economic changes, Cuba holidays are more appealing than ever, with the country enjoying a great tourism boom.

Cuba holidays are major attraction thanks to Arab spring and U.S. reforms

Cuba is enjoying an unprecedented boom in the number of travellers visiting the country and going on Cuba holidays to discover the mystic allure this controversial island at the heart of the Caribbean awakens among curious travellers. According to experts, the recent success of Cuba's tourism boom can be largely attributed to various main factors. One factor is the upheaval caused by the violence in northern Africa thanks to the Arab Spring, driving many tourists who would normally go on holidays to that region to other alternative sunny holiday destinations in the destinations. A second factor is the change on previously strict U.S. legislation on travel to Cuba, which has now been loosened up to allow some American citizens to discover the communist country and learn about its culture and history through speciallly licensed historical, religious, academic and cultural holidays to Cuba. The last, and certainly not least factor is the fact that Cuba itself is transforming and evolving from an economical point to view, and it has been the changes on economic reforms at home that have also helped drive more tourism to the island.

All of these factors together are driving a major tourist rush that is giving the island one of its best seasons ever while stretching its ability to accommodate rising demand. Hotels in Cuba are full to the brim and Old Havana, the capital's historic center, is teeming with tourists from all over the world, coming to soak up the warm winter sun and stroll along narrow colonial streets.

 Old Havana, Cuba
Image by: LA Observer, on Flickr

Along Havana's famaed Malecon, the capital city's seaside promenade, 25 buses were lined up on a recent sunny day, waiting to carry foreign visitors enjoying winter holidays in Cuba to their next tourist destinations. At the Bodeguita del Medio, where Ernest Hemingway used to enjoy his favourite mojitos and where worldwide tourists now go to emulate him, almost as many people stood on the stone-paved street waiting to get into the jam-packed bar.

"We are at capacity. The beach resorts, Havana city are totally full. In the interior of the country, there is nowhere to find a room, nowhere," were the words from the manager of a foreign hotel company.

Cuba recently finished 2011 as its its best year for tourism with 2.7 million visitors in total, and experts are saying that the level of current bookings for Cuba holidays suggest the island will almost certainly beat that number in 2012.

"I think 2012 will be a very good year and I see real difficulties in how to organize and manage all this in 2013 and 2014," the head of a European travel agency's Havana office said.

This high winter season 2011-2012 has also seen a resurgence in visitors from Europe, where numbers had decreased in recent years. This was largely due to the fact that many Europeans who usually go to North Africa for winter holidays to Egypt, for example, are now having to look elsewhere because of security concerns following the uprisings in the Arab world last year.

The political stability and lack of crime in Cuba are looking as attractive to touruists as the alluring pristine beaches in Cuba.

 Paradise beach, Las Brujas Island, Cuba
Image by: tmaros, on Flickr

"It's just a sort of insecurity. Especially in the German market, if there is a crisis somewhere, they immediately stop going. Cuba is viewed as safe," the travel agency head revealed.

"You want security, that's Havana. I would estimate that from France alone tourism to Cuba is up 20% largely because of events in North Africa," the hotel company manager added.

The company manager added that Egypt, where tour holiday packages are comparably priced to Cuba and political unrest continues, is losing the most customers to the Caribbean island.

On the other hand, Cuban Americans have been flooding the island ever since U.S. President Barack Obama lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba in 2009. While the figures for the yearly tourist numbers by nationality for 2011 haven't been published yet, unofficially around 375,000 Cuban Americans are said to have visited Cuba in 2010. Mostly they stay with family members or friends and are not the ones filling up Cuba hotels, but they do rent lots of cars during their holidays in Cuba.

 Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana- Cuba
Image by: Robin Thom, on Flickr

But now the number of other American visitors to the island is also climbing after Obama further ammended regulations in 2011, making it easier for non-Cuban Americans to visit the country that thanks to the 50-decades-long U.S. embargo was completely off-limits for a long time. "I'm having enormous difficulty finding places for my customers. It's the Americans, they're getting all the good beds," complained a Cuba travel company owner, referring to guest rooms in the best hotels in Cuba getting filled up by U.S. travellers.

When they come to Cuba to make what is known as "people to people" contact, American visitors spend their days visiting museums, schools, hospitals and tobacco farms with only a limited amount of time allowed for wandering about, as their Cuba tours and specialised holiday packages are subject to strict limitations and regulations.

Americans on holidays in Cuba who are asked to discuss their experience tend to be reluctant to talk and in some cases defensive, perhaps fearing retribution from their government. "We don't want to advertise that we're here. I don't think that would be very smart," an elderly man noted as he quickly walked away towards the safety of the Hotel Nacional.

 Hotel Nacional, Havana- Cuba
Image by: The Tinster, on Flickr

Cuba revealed that, excluding Cuban Americans, a total of 63,046 Americans arrived to the island in 2010.

"I think right about now the American groups are starting to come," said director of U.S. travel company Insight Cuba, Tom Popper. He explained that demand for Cuba holidays among American travellers has been strong, and that his company has already brought or signed up 2,200 people for trips to Cuba.

The National Geographic Expeditions website shows that it has 17 licensed Cuba tours for Americans have been planned from now through May 2012 and all are totally booked.

According to Popper, for Americans, the Cuban allure is partly that it has been the forbidden fruit for many decades. But for them and other travellers around the globe, President Raul Castro's campaign for economic reform in the island is a drawing card as well as they fear that the aged glamour may be losing out to the modernisation of economic reforms and those still wanting to see the unique quaint Cuban charm of the old 50s cars circulating and the shabby chic of crumbling colonial buildings are rushing to take unique Cuba holidays in 2012 as all these attractions that have characterised the island for years may soon disappear.

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