Thinking of travelling to Cuba? Travel expert says go now

In this Aug.10, 2014, photo, people get ready to swim in the ocean as they arrive to Guanabo beach on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. (File photo). Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

Cuba was one of the few destinations where Canadians didn’t have to compete with U.S. travellers for hotel bookings and resort packages. But that’s poised to change very soon.

Canadians were the beneficiaries of decades of hostile relations between the U.S. and Cuba — not that that’s something to revel in — accounting for nearly 1.2 million visitors to the Caribbean island nation in 2014, or one-third of all of travellers, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.

That same year, there were roughly 91,000 Americans who travelled there. But after the U.S. government eased travel restrictions for some citizens and residents, the number of tourists jumped to 161,000 in 2015.

As of now, only American travellers who fall under one of 12 specific categories are allowed to travel to the country.

READ MORE: ‘A new day’: Obama, Castro come face to face in historic meeting in Cuba

But as the gateway to Cuba is set to open further, American tourists and travel companies are chomping at the bit to enter a largely forbidden market.

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“I’m encouraging anyone who wants to see it in its existing form to go and, if they can, go prior to November of this coming year when we’re starting to see some of the contracts with the U.S. (air) carriers beef up,” said Claire Newell, a Vancouver-based travel expert.

She said popular beach destinations are about to get a lot more crowded and the deals might not be so sweet for much longer.

“Our Canadian tour operators have had a really great relationship with the hoteliers and suppliers that are down there,” she said. “[But] negotiating power changes when there’s more competition.”

READ MORE: 6 of Cuba’s top Airbnbs under $100 now open to travellers everywhere

The volume of new tourists vying for spots is one thing, Newell said, but a bigger issue is that Cuba is not yet ready for such a drastic influx in visitors.

“You don’t have the airport infrastructure, you don’t have the hotels, the highways, the restaurants, the tour groups,” she told Global News. “That will come and will probably come really, really quickly… but right now it’s not quite there.”

When it does, Newell added, you’re going to see another big change to Cuba as you know it.

“The thing that makes Cuba so great is the fact that there hasn’t been that crazy commercialization,” Newell said.

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“There’s already companies going down there looking for real estate,” she said.

As U.S. President Obama prepared to head to Havana for the first visit by an American president in 88 years, a U.S. company inked a multi-million-dollar deal — the first since Fidel Castro toppled the Cuban government on Jan. 1, 1959.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide signed a deal Saturday to ” market two properties in Havana and signed a letter of intent to operate a third,” Reuters reported. That’s just the beginning.

The beaches will still be beautiful, but Newell expects they’ soon be lined with far more hotels than before, much like you’d see along sandy shores of somewhere like Honolulu or other popular sun destinations.

READ MORE: Barack Obama opens door widely for Americans to travel to Cuba

Industry watchers are also looking to see whether Canadian airlines might take a hit.

For years Canadians have enjoyed having options for non-stop charter flights from Canadian airports, and those flights have also been one of the few options for Americans to travel to Cuba.

You could eventually see up to 110 daily flights between U.S. cities and destinations in Cuba, Travel Week reported last month, while Forbes suggested ticket prices could drop as much as 50 per cent once routes open up.

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If U.S. carriers begin offering cheaper flights, some Canadians may find cheaper options via American airports.

“Should U.S. border airports start offering services to Cuba, it definitely has the potential to exacerbate the leakage of passengers,” National Airlines Council of Canada executive director Marc-Andre O’Rourke told Travel Week.

Newell isn’t to sure that will happen, but options could make prices more competitive and it may allow Canadian travellers to redeem points for a trip to Cuba using U.S. carriers.

But she thinks Canada already has the market cornered on the cheap flights to Cuba front.

Even once major American carriers score contracts to fly to Cuba, Newell said those flights aren’t likely going to compete with the non-stop charter flights already on offer from airports across Canada — not to mention, tickets are priced in Canadian dollars.

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