Monday, April 20, 2009

Furst Quarter Tourism Up 2% in Cuba

Cuba Tourism Grows Despite World Crisis

HAVANA , Cuba, April 19 (acn) The arrival of 809,937 visitors to Cuba during the first quarter of this year, set a new record figure for the Caribbean nation’s high tourist season.

The official figure, published by the Cuban National Statistics Office (ONE) surpasses all previous reports and exceeded by 2 percent the figure reported same period of 2008; the event takes place despite the serious impact by the economic crisis on the tourist industry all over the world, which could stop the historic and sustained growth of the sector.

Experts with the World Tourism Organization (WTO) estimate that this year, the industry, at world level, could again see the decrease in the number of tourists that took place in 2003, when the indicator fell by 1.4 %, or the 2000 null growth, with particular impact on Europe and The Americas.

This forecast could either improve or worsen depending on the performance of the world’s economy, with an emphasis in the aforementioned areas, where the most severe effects of the crisis are being felt.

Tourism has proven to be one of the most resistant economic sectors and it may signal a strategic way ahead, at a time when the world economic situation continues to deteriorate, according to the WTO.

Since 1996, Cuba has been part of a reduced group of five Caribbean countries that has been receiving over one million foreign visitors annually, and since 2004 Cuba has reported more than 2 million visitors, a figure that has remarkably increased till reaching 2,35 millions last year.

Canada has consolidated its position as Cuba´s main source of tourists, with 818,246 vacationers in 2008; the figure is far larger than the one reported the previous year, which marks a tendency that has prevailed for nearly a quarter of a century.

Other major sources of tourist to Cuba, after Canada, were the U.K., Italy, Spain and Germany in that order, while in Latin America Mexico and Argentina occupied outstanding positions.

Since 1985 Cuba has experienced a sustained growth in the tourist flow, with short downfalls in 2002, 2006 and 2007.

Friday, April 17, 2009 Head Writes to the President

Dear President Obama,

Today you made great strides in breaking the tension between Cuba and America. Allowing
unlimited travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans to their family in Cuba is a great first step, and I commend the efforts. Now it's time to focus on giving full travel freedom back to all American's.

My son is 8 years-old and loves baseball more than most things in his young life. Among other topics, baseball is something that we share through many different media. Not a day goes by when we don't discuss players, strategy, or the history of the game.

Last year, when he heard that a group of Little League players from New England were given the opportunity to travel to Cuba and play with kids there, he was so excited because he was sure that he would be afforded the same opportunity. I researched what it took the players from Vermont and New Hampshire to secure the trip and was stunned to find out that 20 months had passed from first request to final permission. Twenty months of bureaucracy so boys could play baseball together.

I usually have an easy time explaining complex topics with my kids, but I was at a loss how to explain this. How do you explain decades-old geo-political tensions that have absolutely no impact on an 8-year-old in 2009? I barely understand it and I'm 41. But, I did the best I could and you know what he said to me after my paltry explanation? "Dad, are the kids who play baseball in Cuba bad people, too?" With all due respect Mr. President, I question whether this is the lesson we want to teach our children.

I understand that the situation is much more complex and that some of Cuba's policies are counter to U.S. ideals. I also fully acknowledge that my motives are selfish and foreign relations experience limited. But, with all of the other international issues facing our country, does this little island nation really deserve our isolationist policy? Several elected officials are echoing growing public sentiment by questioning our hard-line policies. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) said the other day that "we have to remember that every country in Latin America, 15 countries, have normal relations with Cuba. ... We're the country which is isolated."

If it provides any impetus at all, there is a sharp increase in U.S. interest in traveling to Cuba. I looked up Google searches for "travel to Cuba" and they show a 70 percent increase in searches recently. This highlights the interest that has grown with the possibility of leisure travel to Cuba from the U.S. People in the U.S. want to travel to Cuba for the right reasons. I want to travel to Cuba to help my kids learn and grow as caring, understanding people. The travel industry itself needs this boost during these tough economic times.

Cuba is rich in history and has played an interesting role in the world. It also has some of the most beautiful beaches and friendliest people in the world (or so I am told). Yes, it has inflicted its share of pain and suffering, but what nation hasn't? In my son's eyes, he just wants to play baseball with a group of kids that he has heard love the game as much as he does. In my eyes, I want to share the unique experiences with my family that only come from travel to a foreign land. I want my kids to be open to differences in culture, religion, politics, whatever. I am trying to teach the importance of acceptance to my kids and I hope they choose this path. Why should we expect anything less from our elected leaders?

Mr. President, you ran a campaign based on inclusiveness. You had a very large tent and asked people from all faiths, beliefs, political parties, and even nationalities to join the movement for change. Our policy on leisure travel to Cuba seems to be opposite those ideals. It is time to change tactics on our relationship with Cuba and give American's the freedom to travel there.

Baseball connects people. Being a Boston Red Sox fan, I have seen multi-generations embrace and share the sport. Travel also connects people. It helps shrink the world and bring people together. I think I speak for many others in the same situation when I ask that we be allowed to share these experiences with our kids before life takes them on divergent paths. It is the right lesson to teach both Cuban and American children. It is the lesson I try hard to instill every single day. It is simply the right thing to do.

--Carl Schwartz, Chief Travel Officer,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cuba Prepares

Cuba readies for possible influx of U.S. tourists
Sun Apr 12, 2009 1:10pm EDT

By Jeff Franks

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) - Behind the mangroves that skirt the blue waters of Cuba's Bay of Cardenas, a 1,500-slip marina is taking shape as the island's tourism industry braces for what could be its biggest challenge yet.

The Americans are coming -- or they may be, soon.

Rock jetties jut out into the bay and beyond them a plot of land the size of several football fields is taking shape, reclaimed from the water as part of a big new marina project at Varadero, a beach resort 80 miles east of Havana.

"The Americans will come here in their yachts and they'll put them in the marina," said a security guard, gesturing to the earth-moving and sand-dredging behind the mangroves.

"It's so close, they're expecting a lot of them," he added, referring to the United States just 90 miles away.

The United States and Cuba have been separated by a wide ideological gulf since Fidel Castro's 1959 Revolution.

For most of that time, Americans have been prohibited by their own laws from traveling to the communist-led Caribbean island under a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

But that may change. Legislation to free travel by Americans to Cuba is pending in the U.S. Congress, and backers expect it could be approved in what they see as a developing thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama.

"If the travel ban is lifted, you'll probably see hundreds, hundreds of American yachtsmen going to Cuba the next day," said Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department official who studies Cuban commercial issues.

Cuba's government and people have been anticipating this moment for a long time, but questions about their readiness for an onslaught of American visitors are being raised.

The doubts focus on the capacity and quality of Cuba's tourist infrastructure, but also on possible political effects on an island that has resisted U.S. influence for 50 years.

After years of animosity with the United States, Cuban leaders do not like to say that developments such as the Varadero marina, and other big golf and leisure projects, are being built with the American market in mind.

The official line is that Cuba is preparing for visitors from the whole world and if that includes Americans, so be it.

But the United States is the natural market for Cuba, whose economy is reeling from the damage inflicted by three hurricanes last year and the ongoing global financial crisis.


A study for the International Monetary Fund estimated that as many as 3.5 million Americans could visit Cuba annually if the travel ban was lifted.

But travel experts say 500,000 is a more likely maximum the Cuban government would allow in the early years because it does not have enough facilities for more.

"Cuba is ready to absorb another half million visitors a year, but not another million, just because of hotel capacity," said a foreign businessman in Cuba's travel industry.

"I'm sure they will try to control as much as they can in order to avoid a boom that nobody can control. Every country in the world would try to do the same," he added.

One of Cuba's biggest sources of cash in recent years has been foreign tourism, which brought in 2.3 million visitors and $2.5 billion in revenues in 2008.

According to government statistics, the island had about 55,000 hotel rooms in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. At least 10,000 more are under construction, and others are on the drawing boards.

Experts say Cuba will need more four- and five-star hotels for Americans, but also more and better restaurants, shops, rental cars and other tourist amenities.

Before Fidel Castro took power on January 1, 1959 in a guerrilla uprising, Cuba was a U.S. playground where Americans swilled booze during Prohibition and gambled and partied the night away in Mafia-built casinos and nightclubs in the 1950s.

They came in boats and planes, and ferries carried them back and forth across the Straits of Florida from Key West. They filled up Havana hotels like the Plaza and the Inglaterra and hung out at Sloppy Joe's bar or the Tropicana night club.


In 2007, Cuban government figures show just 40,000 people visited from the United States, although the overall figure is said to be far higher because many come to the island through other countries on visits that are illegal under U.S. law.

By comparison, 660,000 came from Canada, the top supplier of tourists to the island, followed by Europe.

Opponents of the Cuba embargo hope more American visitors could open up future opportunities for U.S. investors in a Cuban market now dominated by Europeans and Canadians.

"I think there's going to be a lot more pressure from the likes of Marriott and Hyatt and Starwood and others to allow U.S. investment," said Ashby.

Because of its proximity, travel experts say it is inevitable the United States will one day dominate Cuba tourism again. Within 10 years, said one industry source, perhaps 70 percent of the island's visitors will be American or Canadian.

When that happens, said Nigel Hunt, head of Cubaism Ltd, an Internet travel sales site, Europeans who currently make up about 40 percent of Cuba tourists may go elsewhere.

"If Cuba becomes Americanized, it would probably be less attractive to Europeans ... That's what makes Cuba interesting, modern American culture is not so pervasive here," he said.

The possible "Americanization" of Cuba is a selling point in Washington for lifting the travel ban. Supporters say the more Americans who visit the island, the more pressure there will be for an economic and political opening on the island.

While Cuba's leaders may fret over the prospect of large numbers of Americans arriving, ordinary people in Varadero who depend on tourism for a living seem much less worried.

"Not one person here has anything against the Americans," said hotel cook and taxi driver Jorge Mendives as he puffed on a cigarette outside the stately Mansion Xanadu hotel, built in the 1920's by U.S. millionaire Irenee du Pont de Nemours.

"Let them come to Varadero in their boats or whatever because for us the Americans mean one thing -- more money".

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta, Esteban Israel and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Conde Nast Traverler Takes a Look

Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?

by Barbara S. Peterson
Conde Nast Daily Traveler

April 02, 2009

Here's the latest stimulus package to come out of Washington: Take one formerly forbidden destination, mix in short, cheap flights and bargain beach resorts, and it's hello Havana, good-bye overpriced tourist traps. Today a phalanx of more than 120 House lawmakers joined a gaggle of two dozen like-minded senators to call for a full repeal of the 47-year-old ban on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba, the only country in the world our government expressly forbids us to visit. (Technically, it's a Treasury Department ban on spending money there--but it's the same thing).

So it's exciting to hear reports out of Havana that U.S. airlines are already in "regular and direct contact," as one source put it, with Cuban travel industry officials about resuming direct air links between the countries.

Calls in to several major lines, including American and Continental, were not returned, but a spokeswoman for the airlines' lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, said the group "will be watching this development with great interest." That's an understatement. While cruise lines could certainly step in to fill demand in the immediate future, airlines will have to compete to get permission from the Transportation Department to fly to a new country, and typically such deals include reciprocity for the flag airline of the other country. Cubana, with its clapped-out Soviet-era planes, isn't exactly going to give our beleaguered airlines much competition.

Not everyone involved is thrilled at the prospect of Cuba becoming the next Cancun. Several Cuban Americans I spoke with recently expressed concerns about the unbridled development this could set off. But tourism is important to Cuba; the island already receives 2 million visitors a year from countries like Canada, Britain, and Spain, whose citizens can go there. U.S. tourism officials predict that American visitors to the island could top 3 million annually.

Certain Americans can travel there now--academics, journalists, and some others who fit some strict criteria--but even they must apply to the State Department for permission or risk a $7,000 fine. There is direct service from Miami and (soon) JFK via charter airlines, but you can't just go online and book; this trip involves travel agencies and the ritual red tape. And it's an open secret that many Americans are already going there illegally via a third country.

It's obvious why this is coming up now, just months into the new administration. George W. Bush's hostility towards the Castro regime led him to tighten up this arcane rule. While there are still a few members of Congress who strongly oppose anything that looks like we're cozying up to the Castro regime, odds are that lifting the ban is an idea whose time has truly come. Supporters predict the move will create jobs in the travel and tourism industries and lead to an easing of trade barriers.

Debate Over Travel; Insight from ASTA

Spring Break in Havana?

Senate Proposal to Lift Cuba Travel Ban Ignites Debate
A bipartisan group of 20 senators is calling for a repeal of a 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba, saying the proposal will weaken the Cuban regime that will "make a difference for democracy."

By Stephen Clark

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Move over, Cancun. Step aside, Acapulco. Another island could soon become the Spring Break Capital of the World.

It may be time to party hearty ... in Cuba.

If some U.S. lawmakers are right, American tourists could hit the beach in Cuba, and help defeat the forces of evil who have led the island nation for nearly half a century.

A bipartisan group of 20 senators is calling for a repeal of America's 47-year-old travel ban to Cuba, saying the proposal will weaken the Castro regime and "make a difference for democracy."

"The best antidote to totalitarianism is the American citizen traveling, the ability to actually communicate with other people," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn, said at a news conference this week. "The one thing that totalitarianism can't stand is light, is communication, is information."

But anti-Castro groups call that argument specious.

"The senator means well. But we know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions," said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for Free Cuba.

Calzon agreed with Dodd that the best way to fight totalitarianism without going to war is disseminating the truth.

"One can agree that information is essential and disagree that hundreds of thousands of Americans drinking mojitos at the beach and thousands engaging in sex with young boys and girls won't bring democracy to Cuba," Calzon said, adding that American tourism did not end totalitarianism in Chile under Augusto Pinochet, South Africa under P.W. Botha or Cuba under Fulgencio Batista.

"The idea that American tourists are going to bring democracy to Cuba and other totalitarian countries flies in the face of every factual analysis in the last 100 years," he said.

Proponents of the bill have not set a date for the Senate to take up the legislation, but they are confident that they have the necessary votes to move forward with the measure.

President Obama signaled during last year's campaign that he was open to loosening restrictions on Cuba. An Obama administration official told that the White House is reviewing current practices in relation to travel and remittances.

"We hope to see evidence that the government has committed itself to address the disparities among citizens with regards to human rights and economics," the official said, noting that Obama has stated it makes "moral and strategic sense to lift restrictions for family visits."

"We continue to evaluate our key objections, the need for democratic reform and improving human rights while looking at ways to meet these goals that the president has laid out," the official said.

In 1962 the United States established the travel ban along with a number of other restrictions, including a trade embargo, soon after Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba. His brother Raul now rules the island nation, located 90 miles from the Florida coastline.

Tourism is already considered the heart of the Cuba' economy, with more than 2 million people visiting each year, mostly from Canada and Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany.

Last year, tourism generated a record of more than $2.7 billion in revenue, a 13.5 percent increase over the previous year, the Cuban government reported.

Cuban tourism has remained strong while the number of visitors to other Caribbean destinations has dropped amid the world financial crisis. International travel operators say Cuba remains popular because many visitors can buy relatively cheap, all-inclusive packages and can budget trip costs well in advance.

William Maloney, chief executive officer of the American Society of Travel Agents, said lifting the U.S. travel ban would open the floodgates to American tourists seeking to explore a forbidden territory.

"The pent-up curiosity about what the island and country is like would create a lot of demand for first-time visitors to go," Maloney told He said Americans traveled in droves to South Africa when apartheid ended and to Germany when the Berlin Wall collapsed and to Vietnam after the war ended.

"Americans have a curiosity to go where they were not welcomed or allowed to before," he said. "Americans should have a right to travel anywhere. When those rights are curtailed or denied, it stores up pent-up demand that will be satisfied at some later date."

Maloney said if the travel ban is lifted, the first wave of tourists will probably be accommodated on cruise ships out of Miami, bringing to Cuba anywhere from half a million to a million American visitors a year. Then airlines would start flying there.

But Calzon said he believes the more lawmakers learn about the facts on the ground in Cuba, the less likely they are to favor lifting the ban.

"Lifting the travel ban means the most hostile elements of the Cuban government will get an injection of our currency," he said. "The tourist industry is controlled and staffed by the Cuban government. If Washington wants to transfer dollars to the Cuban military, that's one way of doing it.

"Secondly, lifting anything on Cuba without getting anything in return goes against U.S. interest. Cuba is part of an anti-American hostile coalition in the region that includes Venezuela."

Other critics of the proposal, including Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., agree, claiming that any U.S. tourism dollars will only bolster the Castro regime.

"This is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba, not provide the Castro regime with a resource windfall," he said in statement. "Changing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens will simply allow Americans to contribute to resources available to the Castro regime to perpetuate its repression.

"My fellow senators should be standing in solidarity and showing support for the 11 million Cubans who are suffering under the Cuban regime, instead of making it easier for Americans to vacation in Cuba."

But supporters of the proposal argue the travel ban has not worked, either.

"This is a failed policy that has failed for 50 years and it is long past the time to change the policy," Sen. Bryon Dorgan, D-N.D., said Tuesday. "Punishing the American people in our effort to somehow deal a blow to the Castro government has not made any sense at all."

FOX News' Mosheh Oinounou and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

International Tourism Fair in Havana May 4-8

Cuba's 29th International Tourism Fair will be held in Havana May 4-8 offering a unique comprehensive survey of opportunities for the US travel industry if legislation to end travel restrictions is adopted (HR 874, S 428). This is an annual trade show at which the full range of domestic and international travel services and facilities available in Cuba are represented. High level officials speak and presentations are made by the primary government tourism agencies. Hundreds of tour operators and travel agents from Canada, Europe and Latin American attend, negotiating contracts for the following year. Germany is the guest of honor this year.

Under current OFAC regulations, it is not legal for American travel agents or tour operators to attend, even with a general license for professional research (" meetings or conferences may not be for the purpose of promoting tourism in Cuba"). However, that could change if President Obama decides to "loosen remaining travel restrictions for all Americans by the time he goes to the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas" as reported in the Washington Post on March 30th. Even at present there is no legal obstacle to travel writers covering the Fair. They have a general license if they are "persons regularly employed as journalists by a news reporting organization".

For further information, see the FIT website here or contact John McAuliff, Travel Industry Network on Cuba,