Sunday 24 September 2017

Cuba: 'Come before Americans arrive in their droves'

On the cusp of change...

Toned down: The few billboards there are in Cuba celebrate revolution
Toned down: The few billboards there are in Cuba celebrate revolution

Eoghan Corry

It is no surprise that Cuba's largest tourist market is Canada. Canadians love the climate, the culture and the fact there are NO Americans.

All that is about to change. "Come before the Americans arrive," has been a bit of a mantra over recent years. Not any more. In advance of scheduled flights, the Americans have already started arriving.

Booking.com, monster of the hospitality industry, started doing online reservations for Americans this week. And the feeding frenzy has begun. This is bad news for the rest of us. Bed prices are up 35pc for winter 2016-17, and 2015 was already up 20pc on 2014.

Hotels that feature in holiday brochures are telling tour operators to stop sales and then selling at higher prices directly online. The B&Bs, casa particulares, are also cashing in, with much higher prices. A shortage of quality hotel beds is emerging in Havana.

Transportation is also becoming a problem due to shortages of buses and private rental cars. Taxis are increasing their prices. When the cruise ships arrive in greater numbers (MSC already calls), excursions will be a problem. Tour operators are advising to book at least six months in advance if you want a good hotel in Havana.

Ireland's love affair with Cuba goes back to the Aeroflot Ilyushin service from Shannon 1975-78 and again from 1980 to 1992. We still send 7,000 tourists a year.

Big Spanish hotel groups like Riu, Melia and Iberostar have delivered high-end accommodation to compete with all-inclusive havens such as Punta Canta and Montego Bay.

The first thing Americans will notice is the lack of advertising. It's like someone has turned the volume down, and you can hear yourself think. The billboards you do see celebrate revolution - on the way from the airport, a big Robert Ballagh-inspired representation of Che Guevara dominates Plaza de la Revolucion.

Cuba is just 30pc larger than Ireland, but getting out of the city can be a drama. The roads are poor, if improving, but even short distances take longer than expected.

The country's unrivalled signature attraction is Old Havana town, a truly historic icon with small rum bars, coffee houses and young boys and girls in pioneer uniforms playing in the streets. The lack of investment through the Communist era means the colonial city is lovingly restored, from Plaza Vieja to Plaza de la Catedral, where you can find one of Christopher Columbus's three graves.

It is hard to escape Havana's most photographed artefacts, gleaming and looking new in the intense sun, and vintage-car tours are popular. Hemingway's haunts are well flagged and the city's amazing rum is celebrated at Museo del Ron and Factory Bocoy, and the famed cigars at the Cigar Museum and the Partagas Cigar Factory.

The colonial fort on Havana's shoreline, Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana, offers some pageantry and views back to the city, as does El Morro lighthouse, which was constructed by Leopoldo O'Donnell. Take a drive to Playas de Este, stunning beaches just a few minutes from the city centre. There is a prominent monument to Alejandro O'Reilly from Baltrasna, Co Meath. Another Irish connection is retained through the newly renovated Palacio O'Farril.

Literary fans can visit the Museo Hemingway Finca Vigia and the Seville Hotel, location for Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, saved from dereliction in 1919 by another two Irishmen, John Bowman and Charles Flynn. In Cuba, everything is not as it appears on the surface.

Eoghan Corry is an author and the editor of Travel Extra

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