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A Few Thoughts on CubaApril 9, 2009 By: Michael Browne
There’s been a lot of talk about Cuba opening up for travel lately and the prospect has travel agents justifiably excited—particularly home-based agents, many of whom focus on Caribbean destinations.
I recently met with Rob Hodel, owner of U.S.-based Tico Travel in Fort Lauderdale with his brother Steve, who has been coordinating travel to Cuba for 10 years now, and says the recent lifting of the three-year restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba means more changes are coming.
Hodel said the new rules mean the slate on past trips made by Cuban-Americans has been wiped clean and that, as a result, he expects travel to increase dramatically among that group, as well as others now allowed to travel.
To that end, Hodel’s firm is revamping its website—www.destinationcuba.com—and adding staff, anticipating a dramatic rise in demand for services by Cuban-Americans and others now allowed to travel to Cuba, such as those involved in agricultural sales, another area the U.S. government gave the green light to by the president’s signing of the Omnibus bill in mid-March.
And now, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would allow U.S. citizens to visit the country, raises many other questions for agents. After our meeting, I received an e-mail from Hodel in which he shared his thoughts:
“In regards to the piece you just ran on the new legislation, it (the legislation) raises as many issues as it attempts to address. The law would remove travel restrictions but NOT the embargo. That means the Treasury Department would still have the financial restrictions regarding Cuba in place.
“Some have asserted that while Americans may be free to travel they would still have to use only authorized Travel Service Providers like Tico Travel, in order to travel to Cuba or be in violation of the embargo. It also does not lift the restrictions on things like credit-card use in Cuba, nor the ability to purchase Cuban products and bring them back to U.S. (cigars would still not legally be permitted to be brought home).
“As a lawyer in a former life and having had 10 years dealing with the Office of Foreign Assets Control I can assure you the regulations coming out of any new legislation will be very strictly constructed to make the ability to travel to Cuba as difficult as possible.
“I am trying to get more of a clear picture of the details of the pending bill, but at first blush it is very vague and broad in its language. It may just be an attempt to push the administration to act first in order to give the individual members of Congress the political coverage to posture while recognizing that the tide has turned and the opening of travel to Cuba is inevitable.”
Other agents piped in with their thoughts on AgentNation, our social networking site for travel agents. Among their thoughts:
• “I think it will be the hot new destination once the change happens. When I've spoken with Canadians who go there, they go on and on about how great the service is at the resorts, and it's not any poorer than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Certainly not any more authoritarian than a lot of countries of the world that we have full rights to visit.”
• “I think people in general are going to be curious about a place so close to the States that has been off limits to them for more than a generation. There will be some who refuse to go due to their principles, politics or fears, but I think there will be an initial boom of tourists that will go strictly to satisfy their curiosity. It will be up to the people of Cuba to keep the tourists coming back. There are many Caribbean destinations with which they will be competing for the return clients—they will have to offer great service, properties and value for the travel dollar to score the return travelers.”
• “I can't wait to see the restrictions lifted on visiting Cuba. I have long been curious about the culture, the food, the people and especially the music of Cuba. As far as communism goes, if that is the reason for the restrictions, that is NOT a valid excuse. After all, we are practically married to China, the ultimate communist country.”
• “I dare to say that, if restrictions are lifted to travel to Cuba, many Caribbean destinations will feel the impact of—for all practical purposes—a brand-new destination, full of suspense of what's to be found after so many years of isolation. Cuba will immediately receive an avalanche of visitors, and I can't wait.”
We'll be watching this story closely going forward, and would love to hear your thoughts on the issue. Join the discussion on Cuba on AgentNation today.