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Cuba is set to attract more tourists with US deal - but it needs to modernise

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Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

Stunning but also crumbling: old cars and dilapidated buildings in the capital, Havana

Stunning but also crumbling: old cars and dilapidated buildings in the capital, Havana

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Fidel Castro

Salsa music and cigar smoke swirl round the grand courtyard of Havana's famous Hotel Nacional, and guests enjoy views over the 'Malecon' promenade and ocean beyond.

But inside, many of its rooms are shabby and musty, the wifi is costly and weak, customer service is often indifferent, and the food, while plentiful, is generally dull.

Although Havana is loaded with charm, great music and architectural jewels, there is a shortage of quality hotel rooms and restaurants, hire cars, taxis and other services.

Tour operators hope a fledgling detente between Cuba and the United States, announced last month, will lure hundreds of thousands of US tourists to enjoy the island's once forbidden fruits: its white beaches, colonial cities, fine cigars and rum, and the vintage American cars on its streets, thereby helping to boost the economy.

They also know Cuba has to up its game. "There are four or five really nice hotels in Havana which you can count on for a quality experience, and I think that needs to increase six-fold," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.

He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years, from short family visits for Cuban-Americans to holidays for art collectors or cigar aficionados. "You have capacity issues at the airport from luggage getting off flights to the customs process, and so those are all challenges," he said.

The Caribbean island was a favourite of US holidaymakers in the 1950s, but its tourism infrastructure declined following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and US sanctions against the communist government meant Americans could not visit.

The government says international tourism brought in some $2.3bn in revenue in 2013, up from $1.9bn in 2009.

Over the same period, the number of hotel rooms rose by fewer than 2,000 to 52,600. Of the roughly 450,000 US citizens who went in 2013, 350,000 were Cuban-Americans who typically have relatives in Cuba.

As President Obama dismantles sanctions as part of its deal to restore ties, more Americans will be allowed to visit. Even when they can go, they cannot access US bank services or use US credit cards, meaning they have to carry cash or travellers' cheques. There's little internet access and no roaming.

Cuba says a record of more than three million tourists visited last year, up 5.3pc from 2013.

Canadians have led the way in recent years. About 1.1 million visited in 2013, many skipping Havana and flying to Varadero for a beach holiday. In second place was Britain, with fewer than 150,000. Germany and France were next.

Cuba's tourism ministry said last week that its record year in 2014 shows it must "continue perfecting our work, raising the quality of the services we offer".

For now, tour operators are waiting for the US Treasury to publish new guidelines for travellers that they hope could see US visitor numbers shoot up.

"It's a historic time between our two countries, and people always want to be part of history," said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba travel agency.

Irish Independent