Getting there: First steps making Cuba a US tourist destination

It’s now been a year since U.S. President Barack Obama announced he was launching plans to build new, friendlier relations with his country’s longtime Caribbean adversary, Cuba. In 12 months, the plans have blossomed into a diplomatic coup for his Democratic Party administration throughout the Western Hemisphere and around the world. 

And despite often-growling home-front opposition from politicians aligned with conservative second- and third-generation Cuban immigrants in Florida, Obama’s diplomatic momentum seems to be carrying the day. The entrenched immigrants believe these efforts offer comfort to Fidel and Raul Castro, the longtime Communist dictators of their beloved homeland. 

On the other hand, national polls show that Americans would prefer to have good relations with their island neighbors to the south (that was true nationally, even among Cuban-Americans, though not those in South Florida). 

In fact, over recent years of somewhat more relaxed travel rules, many U.S. residents have shown they want to visit there and experience the alegria de vivir they attribute to Cuban lifestyle – as well as the nostalgia the country’s crumbling cities exude, along with its warm climate and hundreds of miles of beaches. 

A limiting factor to any grand tourism ambitions Cuban officials may harbor, though, according to some experts, is that Havana and other points of interest there do not have the lodging capacity of other Caribbean destinations and lack the visitor infrastructure travelers find welcoming. That includes a range of hotel types, easy on-island transportation and financial conveniences like ATMs and simple access to local currency at fair exchange rates. 

One camp of experts warns that U.S. citizens could lose interest in Cuba once they experience it in its current, “forbidden fruit” status. If they return there later, these critics say, they may find the waterfronts developed with garden-variety glass-fronted high-rises financed with American capital. 

Amenities like modern resorts and hotels are a draw for some tourists, but they would take away some of the “specialness” Cuba now lays claim to, especially if it morphs into a standard Bahamas-like resort venue with hotel-lined beaches. 

John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York, talked about that perspective. “Many people here want to see Cuba before it changes. I hear that all the time. They want this ‘theme park in decline,’ with the old Chevys and Fords and rundown buildings. But what kind of choices will Cuban officials make once they get more capital? Will they make Havana look like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, all built up with fresh paint? Maybe that will be less appealing.” 

Kavulich, whose not-for-profit council is a nonpartisan information source for its many major corporate sponsors, thinks great success in the tourism industry is no sure bet in Cuba. The country needs far more hotel rooms, but building them the wrong way could be the kiss of death. 

Besides, he said, airlines might be reluctant to take long-term commitments and print their schedules in stone until they get a sense of how U.S. travelers take to the country that was a Cold War enemy for half a century. 

Another camp projects that Cuba will realize that the romance of the past and the scope and range of its land mass – 770 miles by as much as 118 miles – are what tourists will seek, and that the government is smart enough to preserve its assets. 

Pedro A. Freyre, a Miami-based lawyer with the international firm Ackerman LLP, believes “Cuba will maintain its distinctiveness.” The native Cuban, who emigrated to South Florida years ago with his family, speaks with pride. “It’s extremely beautiful. Excellent beaches. The largest island in the Caribbean.” This expatriate fervently believes Cuba will retain its allure as it enters the 21st century jet age. 

That new age may arrive soon. In fact, the next major success in normalizing relations between the two countries could be finalized in the coming weeks. An agreement over regularly scheduled airline travel between U.S. cities and Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport and other aviation facilities could come in the “short term,” Gustavo Machin, deputy director for U.S. affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, recently told the Associated Press in Havana. 

Meanwhile, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s head of North American affairs, told reporters at the new Cuban Embassy in Washington that agreements on matters including flight scheduling and frequency, environmental issues, regular postal service and protection against drug trafficking could be ready by January. 

One rule the U.S. has kept in place during the last 11 months of transition is the one that governs who may visit Cuba. Once air access is firmly codified, though, everyone expects that regulation to fade away. 

The current rule is this: The U.S. limits travel to Americans who credibly belong to one of 12 categories of interest, including government and humanitarian work, journalism and religion, certain business endeavors, including import-export workers and a few others. (See accompanying article.) 

 

In review  

It was Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama announced his Cuban initiative. Since then, a lot has happened. The president has sought to remove Cuba from a list of states that sponsor terrorism; he has met with his counterpart, Raul Castro; the Pope has visited both nations, praising their efforts to reconcile many of their differences; the longtime trade embargo will vanish; and each country has opened an embassy in the other’s capital. 

The next – and bridging – domino to snap into place would be routine air (and, to a lesser extent, sea) travel that could help bring Cuba into the mainstream of one of the world’s most vital tourist markets. The Caribbean’s vacation destinations shuttle some 30 million Americans a year to its island playgrounds. The visitors contribute about $30 billion to the region, a portion of which cash-strapped Cuba would be happy to receive. 

The aviation agreement between the governments is one step toward a more open tourism market in Cuba, American experts on Cuba-U.S. relations say. “But that’s only the beginning,” according to Kavulich. “After that, American Airlines, United and Delta, Jet Blue, and you might have Southwest Airlines and others, will all start jockeying for the first flights.” Their negotiations will take weeks more. 

Kavulich says the airlines will each have to negotiate with the Cuban government for space and time at the airports and dozens of other issues. 

“Still, I’d say there will be the first scheduled flights before the end of the first quarter of 2016,” he said. The designation of “regularly scheduled flights,” Kavulich thinks, will make it vastly easier, more convenient for travelers to book flights by telephone and the Internet. “It’ll make a huge difference in terms of ease of travel.” 

Getting there is one issue. Staying there and having a good time – or doing business or studying the distinctive culture – is another. Cuba is a poor Communist country with an average wage (according to Full Compass Guides) of about US$30 a month. Yet United Nations analyses show very low unemployment, slightly better life expectancy than U.S. residents enjoy, universal healthcare, almost no poverty and scant violent crime. 

 

Currency issue  

Still, visitors need walking-around money to enjoy Cuba’s fine cuisine, drinks, entertainment and ground travel, as well as lodging. Recent tourists have said cash is king. But most vacationers would prefer not to navigate streets in a foreign land while lugging pockets full of currency. 

The U.S. has reversed its former ban on domestic banks and credit cards operating in Cuba, but the nation has little of the banking infrastructure Americans are used to. Officials say there are some 10,000 sites on the whole island prepared to accept credit cards. The number has grown by 26 percent just this year and will increase for the foreseeable future, but do not look for a cash machine on every corner. 

An enterprising bank in Pompano Beach, Florida, announced it is now issuing special debit cards on the MasterCard imprint that visitors can use at Cuban enterprises. And David Seleski, president and CEO of Stonegate Bank, said in a statement that he expects card users to be able to draw cash from ATMs in the island country starting in 2016. 

Such small gestures in so relatively unprepared a society, though, may give some travelers pause about planning vacations to Cuba. And yet statistics gathered at the University of Havana show that U.S. tourism there increased 50 percent in the first half of 2015, so the growth curve is high. 

There is enough buzz about “the next big destination” in the U.S. to have drawn Airbnb’s interest. The online room-share service moved into Cuba last April. Kavulich said it now has signed some 2,500 residents across the country who rent out rooms in their homes to visitors for anywhere from $20 to $80 a night. 

Guest reviews posted on Airbnb’s website show a variety of responses, from “Nothing works here!” to “It’s just what we wanted in Cuba.” Kavulich considers the service a potential benefit to ordinary Cuban citizens and to the Cuban government. “It will help fill the lodging gap there as more Americans travel to the country,” he said. 

The U.S. government is pleased to see Airbnb there as well. One of the goals of President Obama’s initiative has been to provide advantages to the Cuban people, including financial opportunities and access to the wider world, something the Castro governments have not much permitted. 

In a recent publication from the Council on Foreign Relations, journalist, lawyer and analyst Carla Anne Robbins said, “President Obama hopes to use the detente to bring Cuba into the 21st century and move it toward democracy.” Part of that is to provide a de facto cultural exchange with the Cuban people, spreading Internet use in the country and providing a wider vision of today’s world. 

The Cubans’ objective, Robbins said, is to gain the maximum financial gain while maintaining “as much of the old Castro system as they can.” Certainly, an influx of free-spending Americans will help the nation’s economy. 

But this international experiment between the world’s biggest capitalist country and so fervent a Marxist nation is bound to ride a rocky road in its early days. Already, a Florida charter airline service, Choice Aire, ran into what it called “technicalities” with a service newly launched from the city of Fort Myers, on Florida’s west coast. 

Choice Aire was not able to provide return flights on its own aircraft for some passengers it had flown to Cuba. The small airline booked the passengers on other carriers’ planes back to Miami – then provided overland rides back to Fort Myers. Then it canceled all future Cuba flights, leaving area travel agencies that had promoted the flights grounded. 

Considering how far the U.S. and Cuba have been able to advance their new relationship in less than a year, such problems may seem like small change – to everyone not stuck in a foreign land with no ride home. 

But if scheduled flights and perhaps cruise ship service can actually materialize by the first quarter of 2016, as some predict, Cuban and U.S. citizens alike will have plenty of opportunity to mix and meet. That would happen in the homes and taverns of Pinar del Rio or busy streets of Viaja Havana or the southeast shore of Santiago de Cuba. Wherever, they will have brought an end to 50 years of relative isolation. 

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In this Dec. 19, 2014 photo, a tourist looks out from his hotel room’s balcony in Havana. New rules will allow for an influx of U.S. tourists, perhaps as soon as 2016. – Photo: AP
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Tourists ride a double-decker bus, passing an iron sculpture of Cuban revolutionary hero Che Guevara on the facade of the Ministry of Interior in Revolution Square, in Havana. – Photo: AP
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U.S. toruists want to see the ‘nostalgic’ Cuba, with its classic American cars and old-world charm. How long either of those will last, no one yet knows. – Photo: The Washington Post
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The Cuban flag is raised over their new embassy in Washington, D.C., on July 20. – Photo: AP
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Cubans dance with tourists at Mi Conuco Cafeteria in Havana in January. A giant poster of Fidel Castro hangs on the wall. The thaw in relations has drawn large numbers of U.S. tourists this year. – Photo: The Washington Post/Sarah L. Voisin
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Secretary of State John Kerry, and other dignitaries watch as U.S. Marines raise an American flag over the newly reopened embassy in Havana, Cuba on Aug. 14. – Photo: AP
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