Thursday, December 17, 2009

Money Lost to US Travel Business

Cuba: Travel ban costs US businesses $1.1B a year

The Europa cruise ship is seen in Havana Bay, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. (AP  
AP – The Europa cruise ship is seen in Havana Bay, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano) 
HAVANA – U.S. tourism companies could take in at least $1.1 billion a year on trips to Cuba if Washington didn't ban most of its citizens from visiting the island, officials said Wednesday during a videoconference with American tour operators. That figure includes $600 million in sales by airlines, $300 million for travel agents and $200 million in U.S. tourism-related exports and services, including food and drink items that could be sold to Cuba as well as spending on advertising to promote Cuba as a destination, said Miguel Figueras, a top aide to Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero. Figueras provided few details on how Cuba arrived at the numbers, but pointed to a previous study by the American Society of Travel Agents in asserting that without travel restrictions, 1.8 million U.S. tourists would come to Cuba annually. That includes some 482,000 Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island, he said. More than 2 million foreign tourists come to Cuba every year, with the biggest numbers from Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain and France. It wasn't clear how much of what Cuba was estimating would be new business for U.S. tour operators, since many people interested in visiting Cuba are likely to take trips elsewhere and not simply stay home because they can't come to the island. Journalists attending the videoconference were not allowed to ask questions. Currently, U.S. citizens, other than Cuban-Americans, may legally visit Cuba only if they obtain a license from the Treasury Department for government, journalistic, religious or humanitarian purposes. The embargo took its current form in February 1962 and prohibits nearly all trade between both countries, although the travel ban was eased during the Carter administration. Legislation introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate would end the travel ban, but a series of similar proposals in the past have never made it to floor votes. Dozens of representatives from Cuba's government-run hotels, travel agencies and rental car outlets participated in the video link to a gathering of a similar number of U.S. tourism executives at a Washington hotel. One U.S. tour operator wanted to know why he couldn't buy Cuban beach property and build his own hotel — an impossibility in a communist country where the government dominates all aspects of the economy. Another asked if Cubans are still prohibited from entering tourist hotels, a ban that stood for decades but was lifted in April 2008. When asked about golf, Figueras said the government would like to build 10 new courses. Now, there are just two — a nine-hole course in Havana and an 18-hole one at the beach resort of Varadero. The government has talked for decades about more golf courses, but hasn't yet built even one.


U.S. Travel Industry Gearing up for Return to Cuba
By Anthony Boadle,
December 16, 2009


It's too soon for
Americans to plan a Cuban vacation of beach, mambo and mojitos, but the U.S.
travel industry is gearing up for a return to its largest Caribbean destination
before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Tour operators held a video
conference with Cuban tourism officials in Havana on Wednesday and asked them if
they are ready for the "rush" of Americans if the U.S. travel ban is lifted as
proposed by legislation now under consideration in the U.S.

"Americans really want to see Cuba," said Robert Whitely,
president of the U.S. Tour Operators, which together with the National Tour
Association also present at the event, handles 75 percent of all package tour
business to the Caribbean.

"We predict that at least 850,000 Americans
will go to Cuba in the first year," Whitely said.

That does not include
an estimated 480,000 Americans who will go to Cuba on Caribbean cruises when
U.S. ships are allowed to dock there, and another 480,000 Cuban American
visiting family in Cuba each year, a Cuban official said.

Cuba plans to
build 30 hotels over the next six years with the help of foreign investors,
adding 10,000 rooms to the 48,600 that exist now, as well as golf courses, said
Miguel Figueras, the top adviser to the Cuban tourism minister.


Cuba was a favorite playground for Americans in the 1950s,
when the Mafia ran casinos and brothels in Havana that were closed by Castro. As
Cuba veered toward communism, Washington broke off diplomatic ties, imposed
trade and travel bans and Cuba's tourist trade all but disappeared for three

Some 2.5 million tourists visited Cuba this year, mostly from
Canada and Europe, said Figueras, who indicated that U.S. companies are losing
out to the tune of $1 billion a year.

According to Cuban estimates based
on 2 million Americans visiting Cuba a year, U.S. airlines stand to earn $600
million and travel agencies $300 million annually, Figueras

President Barack Obama has said he wants to improve ties with
communist-run Cuba and lifted restrictions introduced by the Bush administration
on visits and family remittances by Cuban Americans to the island.

whether American tourists will return to Cuba will hinge on debate in Congress,
where opponents say sanctions should not be lifted until Cuba frees political
prisoners and undertakes democratic reforms to its one-party state.

say American tourism will help prop up the communist government of President
Raul Castro, who succeed his ailing brother last year.

A bill to end the
travel ban sponsored by Democrat Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Republican
Jeff Flake of Arizona has 195 backers in the House of Representatives, 23 votes
short, supporters of the measure said.

Similar legislation in the Senate
has the support of key senators such as Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, but
needs 60 votes to pass.

"They are within striking distance in the House,"
said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute think tank.

action on the bill is expected until the spring.

(Additional reporting by
Marc Frank in Havana, editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Copyright 2009 Reuters News Service.

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