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Countdown for Cuba!

As relations thaw with America, John Hutchinson warns Brits to visit now before the island nation changes forever

Cuba is at the top of many lists as a must-visit holiday destination - and there's a big reason for Britons to make that trip sooner rather than later.

For the opportunity to see the 'authentic' Cuba may have a limited shelf-life.

Access to Cuba for American citizens has until now been very restricted - meaning that the country has maintained a 'timewarp' attraction for visitors, with a lifestyle and atmosphere anchored in the Fifties.

But President Obama has big plans to re-develop relations between his country and Cuba - and on the strength of that, mere online enquiries about a holiday there have nearly doubled. Obama has announced a 'new chapter' in relations, with plans including easing access for US citizens, lessening financial restrictions and lifting America's 54-year-old trade embargo.

So the message to British holiday-makers is, see the real Cuba now before the Caribbean country becomes 'Americanised'. The diplomatic thaw will signal a positive future for Cuba - but Brits should hotfoot it there before it changes forever.

Traffic flows by from the Fifties

America will soon re-open an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level visits between governments. Initially, the easing of travel restrictions will apply to officials and their families and for educational activities.

Ordinary American tourists will not immediately be able to book holidays - but it is likely that that will soon change.

One travel expert said: 'It really is a unique place to visit, and once it becomes fully open to the Americans they will without doubt pile in. Havana was seen as a party destination for Americans years ago, such was its proximity to Florida.

'Opening up to the Americans will change the way it feels and I think this will be to the detriment of the culture and heritage of the place. I would urge anyone who is thinking of visiting Cuba to book now; there is something about Cuba that you just can't put your finger on. I would say go now, as you cannot be sure the culture and heritage of Cuba will remain as it is now.'

The streets of Havana are alive with music

Online searches are up 95 per cent as against a year ago. And as one of the popular Caribbean destinations for travellers around the world, Cuba also remains one of the most affordable. There is also a good choice of flights available from the UK.

Another online holiday booking specialist said: 'Cuba is set to change now that relations with the USA are warming up. While Cubans will doubtless fiercely protect their national identity, customs and traditions - the authentic aspects of Cuba so loved by holidaymakers - change will come. First time visitors and those already familiar with Cuba and her charms should visit now and experience the island before the pace of change speeds up.'

A travel industry expert who has visited Cuba a number of times has mixed emotions about the developments.

He said: 'On one hand, part of the charm and intrigue of Cuba as a travel destination is that it is stuck in time, with few shops, no global brands and of course a huge number of old gas guzzling Fifties American cars on the roads.

'On the other hand it is very evident that change will come at some stage, and that the younger generation of Cubans are waiting for that to happen.

While they have excellent education and healthcare, there is still real poverty, and they lack things that we all take for granted such as a choice of goods to buy (food is mostly from ration shops) and access to the internet and to world news.'

'I have no doubt that change will happen quickly once diplomatic relations start to build, and especially if congress agree to start lifting sanctions, which looks likely to happen now. All these things will take some time, but if you want to see Castro's Cuba before change starts to happen I would really recommend travelling soon.'

The ladies of Havana light up cigars

Although immediate change is unlikely, the door will be opened to major development to accommodate an expected influx of travellers.

Travelling to Cuba today often feels like stepping back in time – there are no international fast food or coffee shop chains for instance. Visitors must accept that internet access is limited and slow - irritating for some at first perhaps but a nudge in the direction of taking things easy and chilling out.

There are no shopping centres and department stores, and hotels are either fully or partly owned or run by the Cuban state - and of course there is the visual feast of all those wonderful old cars.

Obama's plans will have a major bearing on one famous Cuban industry.

The long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars will end - and that will be a massive boost to the Cuban economy.

First published in March 2015

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