Fully booked in Cuba

Travellers are rushing to the communist country with talk of the US trade embargo being lifted

Tour operators around the globe are reporting such high demand for travel to Cuba that hotel rooms in Havana are selling out months in advance, with some agencies unable to offer availability until April next year.

This has been a historic year for Cuba, with the recent papal visit, not one but two handshakes between United States President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana after a five-decade standoff.

With talk of floodgates opening next year to US visitors - still limited under the 1961 trade embargo - travellers worldwide have rushed to see the communist country while it retains its unique old-world charm.

According to Cuban tourism minister Manuel Marrero, 2,194,134 people travelled to the Caribbean country in the first part of this year, a 17 per cent increase from last year.

These figures exclude American tourists, also estimated to be up by 36 per cent, as the embargo has already been relaxed for US citizens from the fields of research, athletics, the performing arts, education and humanitarian projects.

Thanks to this surge in interest, travel agencies have enjoyed record numbers of bookings. British operator Journey Latin America reserved nearly 4,000 room nights between January and September this year, compared with 1,000 the previous year.

However, there is a lack of hotel accommodation. There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, with some now reportedly fully booked for up to 18 months.

There are also an estimated 20,000-plus rooms in casas particulares (private homestays).

Many of these, however, cannot be booked in advance online and provide only basic amenities such as a shared bathroom and no Internet access.

Mr Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba - "pioneers in legal, people-to-people travel" for Americans - said: "Tourism has soared and the demand for hotel rooms far exceeds capacity. There is no immediate solution for the accommodation crisis they'll face in the future."

Travel agencies across the board are recommending that holidaymakers book eight to 10 months in advance for the best hotels and tours.

The Cuban government is working towards improving the situation, with 53 investment projects in tourism under way, though some will not be completed until 2018. The ministry of tourism has also hiked prices across the board for government-run hotels, restaurants, tours and car rentals.

Mr Popper said: "They've raised prices to try to dampen demand. Ironically, it's not having any effect, so they're going to raise prices again."

GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Fully booked in Cuba'. Print Edition | Subscribe