Online travel sites report rise in demand for Cuba

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Great Theatre of Havana (Caribbean360/Bigstock)

NEW YORK, United States, Tuesday March 10, 2015 – Music moguls Jay-Z and Beyonce have been there, so have hotel heiress Paris Hilton and talk-show host Conan O’Brian. Now it seems John Public wants to jump on the bandwagon as travel sites report a surge in interest for trips to Cuba.

The development is one of the latest offshoots of improved United States-Cuba relations since the announcement in December by US President President Barack Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Cheapflights.com noticed a spike in interest in Cuba immediately after President Obama announced an easing of travel and trade restrictions.

Indeed, for a few days after the December announcement, Cuba was the fourth most searched site for Caribbean travel on Cheapflights.com, the company said in a press release.

Its popularity surged again in mid-January, after the Obama administration released details about new trade and travel regulations, which included expanding to 12 the categories of Americans who could visit the island.

It went on to jump to number four in the most searched Caribbean destinations, behind Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and has remained near the top since then, according to Cheapflights.com.

“There’s an ongoing and growing interest in Cuba,” Emily Fisher, head of North American Communications for Cheapflights.com, told Fox News Latino. “The people who are interested in going are interested in getting a snapshot of Cuba before it changes.

“It’s like friends of mine who went to East Berlin when the wall first came down, before it became integrated with the rest of the world, when it was untouched, unwestern culture, with no chain restaurants,” Fisher said.

“To some extent, it was Communist tourism; we went through a Cold War, and tourists could see what it was like behind the Cold War. There’s a lot of that feeling with Cuba right now.”

Meanwhile, CheapAir.com now makes it possible to book flights between various US cities and Cuba.

“Since the rule change, we have seen a surge in search volumes for travel to Cuba,” CheapAir.com CEO Jeff Klee said in a statement quoted by USA Today.

“Arranging flights to Cuba is a little complicated, but it’s the kind of thing we’re good at and our technology platform is flexible enough to make it possible. Our team did a great job building it out in just a few weeks’ time.”

But while Americans are keen to explore the Communist Caribbean country, experts say that the US tourism industry is not quite ready to facilitate trips there.

Many restrictions remain to traveling to Cuba, even with the many dramatic changes that are taking place, CheapAir.com notes on its website.

“Travel to Cuba from the USA is only legally permitted for 12 approved reasons, and (unfortunately) hitting the beach isn’t one of them,” the online travel booking site states.

While travellers to Cuba no longer need a special license from the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, their objective for traveling to Cuba must fall within one of the listed categories, which include religious, cultural, educational and humanitarian.

Many trips offered still have travellers going to third countries and taking connecting fights, and fares are often expensive, moreover.

Experts on Cuba travel nevertheless expect that it will get easier and less expensive to visit as demand continues to grow and the US travel industry accommodates it.

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