Friday, May 08, 2009
Cuba Prepares for 'American Tsunami' of Tourists
Prospect of an 'American Tsunami' of Tourists Hangs Over the Cuban
By MARC FRANK
HAVANA, Cuba, May 7, 2009 —
Cuba's magnificent Morro Cabanas fortress has stood guard over Havana
for centuries while its dungeons below grimly played host to doomed
prisoners, both ordinary and political.
Travelers never fail to gaze in awe at the huge stone structure and its
lighthouse high up on a rock cliff to the left, the city on the right,
as they enter Havana Bay from the sea.
One of the fort's many cannons still sounds at 9 o'clock every evening.
In the past it announced the closing of the gates of the once walled
city. Today it carries on the tradition, complete with colonial-era
dressed soldiers and drummers, torch lights and town criers -- all for
the tourists' pleasure. Locals often use the cannon shot to set their
This week, the fort played host to Cuba's annual tourism convention,
which unfolded within the fortress walls, complete with tropical
dancers, carnival troops and performing children. Tour operators from
more than 50 countries watched videos of the island's attractions and
haggled with their hosts over blocks of hotel rooms.
Pirates and European fleets no longer threaten from the north, but one
could imagine lookouts waiting for the first glimpse of an American
cruise ship on the horizon, and imagine the cannon's salute as the first
in half a century entered the bay.
With the United States and Cuba engaged in the first steps toward what
many believe will be a new relationship after a half century of
unremitting hostility, the prospect of an "American Tsunami" of tourists
hung over the convention.
The Obama administration has already lifted all restrictions on
Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island, and is under pressure
to once more allow academic, cultural, religious and humanitarian
exchanges encouraged by the Clinton administration but shut down by the
Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur, the state-run company
that handles all U.S. arrivals, said the number of Cuban Americans
visiting had increased 20 percent this year.
"The flights from the United States carried about 85,000 last year and
so far this year arrivals have been about 40,000," Diaz said.
American Tour Operators Hopeful of More Travel to Cuba
Legislation lifting all travel restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling
to Cuba was introduced in Congress more than a month ago and is given a
fair chance of passing later this year.
Italian tour operator Nicholas Delord appeared almost speechless as he
pondered the possibility.
"I guess it is OK. You know if they behave and act properly," he said.
"There will be more competition and higher prices, but you know the
Americans are everywhere."
Except Cuba, that is, which is off-limits to most Americans since the
U.S. imposed a trade embargo against the largest island in the Caribbean
after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.
Among the hundreds of mainly small businessmen and women from Europe,
Canada and South America, Cuba's main markets for the 2.3 million
tourists who arrived last year, a tall and lanky American named William
Hauf was easy to spot.
"Cuba has so many amenities and good things to offer," Hauf, whose
Island Travel and Tours brought humanitarian groups to Cuba to build
playgrounds until Bush-era regulations all but put him out of business,
"We certainly hope President Obama will relax restrictions on nontourist
travel by academics and humanitarian groups. That is why I'm here," he said.
A tour operator from Florida, who also brought people to Cuba through
2004, said she sensed the time was ripe to dive in again.
"I am confident that things are going to change sooner or later, and I
figured now was the time to reconnect," she said, asking that her name
not be used because the U.S. Treasury Department had not given her, and
a dozen other Americans who attended the convention, permission.
The Obama administration decided last month to hold off on restoring
limited travel rights to nontourist visitors first granted under the
Clinton administration's people to people policy, according to John
McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
McAuliff, who played a role in the difficult process of restoring
relations with Vietnam, said, "We could have brought 100 tour operators
here, and next year we will. And if all restrictions are lifted, there
will be hundreds, maybe even a special event."
'If They Come, We Will Have Everything Ready for Them'
McAuliff and the other Americans said they supported Obama and were
disappointed he had not gone further in opening up travel.
Cuban officials appeared far less concerned, shrugging their shoulders
as if to say, "We have survived this long, so a few months or years more
makes little difference."
"If they come, we will have everything ready for them. If they need more
hotels, more will be built. We are building 5,000 rooms every year, so
we are ready," Havantur's Diaz said.
"And it is true more American tour operators are contacting us, in many
ways, e-mails, telephone calls and some just walk into my office," he said.
Diaz' company featured a video of its Santiago de Cuba offer at the
convention. Cuba's oldest city, located 600 miles east of Havana, is
where the American navy destroyed the Spanish fleet in 1898.
"You might want to add Daiquiri, where the Americans landed, San Juan
Hill where Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders charged and the Spanish
wrecks, still visible off Santiago's coast, to next year's video," I
joked, referring to the possible opening of the U.S. tourist trade.
"No problem," Diaz said with a grin. "You know some Americans come down
here now, and we often take them step by step through the battles they