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.

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