Friday, May 1, 2009

USA Today Reports Momentum Building for US Tourism

'Momentum is building' for legal U.S. tourism to Cuba

By Kitty Bean Yancey, USA TODAY

Anticipation that the U.S. government officially will let its citizens vacation in Cuba is expected to infuse next week's International Tourism Fair there.

The trade show, which starts Monday and will showcase the largest Caribbean island for tour operators, travel agents, airline and cruise representatives from around the world, comes as President Obama has loosened restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting family back home and Congress considers bills that would open the country to U.S. tourists after a 47-year trade embargo.

"I'm very involved trying to get a law passed to lift the travel ban, and we have lots of (bipartisan) sponsors," United States Tour Operators Association president Bob Whitley says. "I feel it will pass; the key is whether Obama will let it."

Says Christopher P. Baker, author of the Moon travel guide to Cuba, who has visited the country more than 30 times: "Momentum is definitely building." He expects to see U.S. firms at next week's fair, and "I'm feeling optimism" that Cuba — about 90 miles south of Key West — will again become a sanctioned destination for Americans and their dollars.

Perhaps 40,000 slip into Cuba annually via Mexican or Canadian airports. (The Cuban government says it does not have statistics.) With an ailing Fidel Castro stepping down as president last year and replaced by brother Raul ("more of a pragmatist," Baker says), observers say Cuba is more receptive to an influx of American hotels and cruise lines.

"There is demand. A lot of (Americans) want to see Cuba," Whitley says.

Many Cubans see the trade embargo — called el bloqueo— "as the main barrier to their advancement," says Brendan Sainsbury, author of the current Lonely Planet guides to Cuba and Havana, who's just back from a visit. "Americans have always been heartily welcomed."

Cuba reported 2.3 million tourists last year vs. 3.4 million for the popular nearby Dominican Republic. Most were Canadians and Europeans. "A large tourist infrastructure does exist," Sainsbury says, especially four dozen mainly all-inclusive resorts on Varadero Beach.

But the facilities — save for some up-to-date resorts and a few contemporary Havana hotels — pose challenges for demanding Americans, experts say.

Cubans own the hotel real estate, "and (foreign) hoteliers don't have free rein to manage as they wish," Baker says. Bad service and food are common. "Communism and good service don't go together," he says. Cuba does not get a high percentage of repeat visitors, he says.

While Cuba is expanding tourist facilities, occupancy has run at 78% to 80%, Whitley says, and demand may exceed hotel supply if the embargo is lifted. U.S. chains won't discuss specific plans, but Whitley says he has heard from the president of a major U.S. brand who said that without a doubt he's interested in moving in.

"I suspect that the likes of Starwood and Ritz-Carlton will one day be in Cuba," Baker says. "But probably not until they can take control of their product."

Cruise lines are already poised to add Cuban ports of call, experts say. Whitley says U.S. tour operators could organize Cuban vacations in six months or fewer.

"There is a mystique" about Cuba, he says. "A lot of people want to see it because we've been denied the right."

"The main plus of Cuba is its uniqueness," Sainsbury says. "Due to its isolation over the last 50 years, it has developed in a totally different way."

The country's "flavor, sensuality" and rich culture are attractions, Baker says.

For its part, Cuba has "never put any restriction on visitation from North American tourists," says Alberto Gonzalez Casals, first secretary of the Washington, D.C., Cuban Interests Section. U.S. tourists "are welcome in Cuba, like all the tourists in the world."

Whitley says legislation allowing U.S. tourism "could pass this year. In time, Cuba is going to be one of the major destinations in the Caribbean."

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