12 MAY 2010: FITCuba 2010, Cuba’s international travel fair, had some 2,000 reps from 30 countries descend on the biggest Caribbean island last week. Just in time to be a part of the country’s new entry policy requiring all foreign travellers to purchase travel medical insurance.

So what happened?

Not much.

It was about 2:20am on an early Monday morning when I finally arrived at the Jose Marti International Airport’s immigration in Havana.

I waited in line. Had my passport, visa, and by now a folded and bent copy of my travel medical insurance I purchased the day before from an online insurance company all in hand.

Finally it was my turn. I shuffled to the window, handed over my passport with tourist card and watched as the customs agent processed it. I looked into his floating camera. He snapped a photo then he handed back my passport to which I then heard a buzzer unlock the door. With my insurance forms still in my hand, I was finished and proceeded to enter the customs area.

The federal government’s website Voyage.gc.ca reports, “Since May 1, 2010, travellers must present proof of health insurance in order to enter the country. Upon arrival, travellers may be required to present an insurance policy, insurance certificate, or medical assistance card valid for the period of their stay in Cuba. Those who do not have proof of insurance coverage may be required to obtain health insurance from a Cuban insurance company when they arrive.”

Over the week’s visit in which I attended FITCuba 2010, an informal poll I conducted revealed visitors from other foreign countries drew a blank stare when I asked them about the new travel medical insurance policy which isn’t so new considering it was announced last February.

“Strange, never heard of it,” was the majority consensus from countries like Finland, Ireland, Japan, and Hungary with other Canadians who flew back on Sunday not really sweating over the new policy.

Let’s face it, most Canadians either have travel medical insurance or they receive coverage from work. According to RBC Insurance, the company provides travel insurance to approximately 200,000 Canadians travelling to Cuba every year. “43 per cent of Canadians feel they don’t need to buy travel insurance because they have sufficient coverage through their work or credit card,” noted Angela Gordon from RBC Insurance.

So, don’t let this new entry requirement get in the way of sending clients to Canada’s favourite sun destination.

During my week’s visit, tour buses drove across six provinces all part of FITCuba’s 2010 mission to showcase Eastern Cuba, and what amazing destinations they have. The travel mart was dedicated this year to Russia as a market and also focused on products catering to the incentive and events industry.

Here’s a small snapshot on what’s new:

Havana

The capital city is constantly changing. Old Havana has had a complete facelift at the Old Square (Plaza Vieja). Business travel is becoming a focus with two new hotels opening in the Miramar district. Watch for the newly opened Barcelo Habana Ciudad, a 178-room four-star property located near the Convention Center, and the Hotel Copacabana, a 168-room property located along the waterfront.

Clients are probably asking about the popular artisan market around Tacon right behind Castillo de la Real Fuerza. It was visibly absent when I was there. Thankfully, I discovered the popular market bustling with local artists and crafts vendors has relocated to cooler confines and is now located at the Centro Antiguos Almacenes de Depósito San José (19), an old warehouse along the marina about four blocks from the Havana Club Rum Museum. Other new markets: Obispo Street has a new open air craft market and Calle 23 a block south from the Habana Libre Hotel has an open street market teeming with vendors.

Holguin

Dubbed “The City of Parks,” Holguin inaugurated a new sightseeing bus line. Outside Havana and Varadero, this hub is the third city in Cuba to have these sleek roofless red double-deckers.

A parade of performance artists wrapped in cellophane of decoupaged magazine and newspaper cutouts stood like statues by them at Central Park. The scene could rival any art installation in Berlin or NYC for that matter.

“The people really love it. See how they come out and greet the bus,” says Jorge Piquero from Cubatur, describing the crowds lining the narrow colonial streets to watch the grand spectacle.

Over by the Hotel Club Amigo Atlantico Guardalavaca, agents are sure to see a familiar face. Carlos Zambrano, the former director of Canada’s Cuba Tourist Board, is now the resort’s general manager. The big selling point here he says is the close proximity to the beach. “It’s the only resort in the region built so close to the beach.”

At the helm for the last two months, Carlos wishes to transform the three-star all-inclusive property to gain an extra star. “Right now our villas are 4 star but I wish to improve upon the level of service and bring the rest of Club Amigo to enjoy a three-star status.”

As he points in the distance to a stretch of white powder beach, Carlos notes this area is scheduled to receive a new five-star resort along Playa Guardalavaca by 2011.

The 747-room family and couples resort caters mostly to Canadian clientele who enjoy cultural activities like cigar rollers, a little romance by the sea with some wine and cheese accompanied by a saxophonist and pianist duo, and the resident cow. “We have the cow. Guardalavaca protects the cow. We were the original, the Amigos Guardalavaca.”

Wency Rosales, PR director of the Mirador Mayabe Restaurant, a rustic alfresco eatery overlooking the lush Mayabe Valley on the outskirts of Holguin City says his hotel property is popular for many reasons. Try the local cultural Afro-Cuban dance, traditional food, the local beer called “Mayabe” and of course their resident donkey “Panchito,” the beer guzzling donkey.

Las Tunas

Are your clients getting tired of Varadero? Las Tunas on the eastern side of Cuba is shaping up to be some healthy competition. With 30+ beaches and historical sites, culture is part of the mix here. The 4km- Covarrubias Beach for instance remains an isolated gem with the blue-green sea and white talcum sand making it an ideal setting for sun worshippers and those wishing to wile away the hours by the sea with a good book.

One beachfront property, Brisas Covarrubias offers guests several options. Choose from day trips to cities like Santiago de Cuba, scuba diving by the 6km stretch of coral reef, bird watching by the Bay of Malagueta and visits to the city of Las Tunas.

Word here is a big resort chain is eying some property.

Each time I return to Cuba I am amazed on the improvements, the restoration of Old Havana, and the excitement Cubans have toward all their cities and attractions. We’ve only scratched the surface.

Viva Cuba!

Photo credits: Stephen Smith


Top: New GM Carlos Zambrano of Club Amigo in Holguin

email icon facebook logo twitter logo

author

Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

Read more from Ilona Kauremszky

comments powered by Disqus