|Pictured above is Morro Castle (fortress) in Havana.|
Travel Agent sat down Wednesday with Eddie Lubbers, CEO of the Cuba Travel Network, and got his expert opinion on everything from the impact of Obama's recent decision to further ease travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba to when we can expect the first U.S.-branded hotel there.
Easing of Restrictions
The Obama administration announced on Tuesday it would allow individuals to travel to Cuba for “people to people” educational trips and lift limits on the use of American dollars in transactions with Cuba, as President Obama prepares to make a historic trip to Havana next week to showcase a new era of engagement.
Perhaps the most important part of that announcement, says Lubbers, is in regards to the people to people trips. Before this announcement, people to people tours had to be with groups of people. Now, individuals can go on people to people trips. Also, the people to people offerings have expanded.
"When you really think about it," says Lubbers, "although all of the restrictions haven't been lifted yet, getting to Cuba is now really no different than going anywhere else in the Caribbean."
While Americans are permitted to make educational visits to Cuba in tour groups, the tourism ban enshrined in the embargo has barred individuals from traveling there on their own, a limitation that will be removed under Tuesday’s revisions.
The new rules will also allow Cuban citizens to earn a salary in the United States and make it easier for dollars to be used in financial transactions with United States banks, something government officials in Havana have long pressed for.
U.S. Branded Hotels
On Monday, it was reported that Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide and Marriott International are close to completing deals in Cuba ahead of President Barack Obama's March 20 trip to Havana.
A representative from Marriott said that company President and CEO Arne Sorenson will be traveling to Cuba as announced by the Administration.
Lubbers, however, says that while he would love to see a U.S.-branded hotel set up shop in Cuba, he doesn't believe it will be this year.
"I would love to see a U.S.-branded hotel open up soon in Cuba, but I don't see that happening in 2016," says Lubbers. "I'm thinking more like perhaps groundbreaking of the first hotel by 2017."
Currently, international trade with Cuba is restricted by specific rules. Private partnerships are not allowed, forcing all foreign businesses to apply to the Cuban government for permission to develop in the country. Both the private international business and the government must provide capital and then divide the profits in a pre-determined pattern.
|Eddie Lubbers, CEO of the Cuba Travel Network|
Flights to Cuba
Earlier this month, major U.S. air carriers, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and JetBlue Airways, announced that they have officially submitted route proposals to provide commercial service to Cuba for the first time in decades.
Whereas Lubbers is excited to see the flight proposals, he did note that Cuba's roughly 60,00 hotel room inventory will not be enough to accommodate all of the passengers, assuming all of these proposed flights get approved.
He did note, however, how pleased he was to see some airlines planning to fly to Santiago de Cuba, an often forgotten about part of the country.
"Most of the infrastructure right now is on the West part of Cuba," says Lubbers. "In fact, about 30 percent of Cuba's hotel rooms are located there. But the East, mainly Santiago de Cuba, is really the off-the-beaten-path part of Cuba right now and there are incredibly opportunities to grow there."
Classic Cars Here to Stay?
Contrary to popular belief, Lubbers says the classic cars that Cuba visitors love so much will not be going anymore once the travel restrictions are fully lifted. Some agents we have spoken to in the past believed the cars would be the first authentic part of Cuba that would disappear once all restrictions are lifted. However, Lubbers told Travel Agent the owners of these classic cars, most of which date back to the '50s, are not allowed to export them. There are about 60,000 classic cars in Cuba.
"They are very strict about exporting merchandise," Lubbers says. "You even need an export license even for a piece of $200 art on the wall. So, those cars aren't going anywhere. The Government knows more money can be made by keeping those cars in Cuba."
About Cuba Travel Network
Created in 2002, Cuba Travel Network is a network of Cuba suppliers from boutique hotels to car rental companies that can customize an individual's or group's vacation to Cuba.