On Site: Pondering Cuba's Future


Cuba anticipates 1 million U.S. visitors in the 12 months after the travel ban is lifted

If and when Americans can once again travel freely to Cuba, industry executives anticipate a huge demand for trips to the island nation.

“Tourism to Cuba would generate $1.18 to $1.6 billion a year for the U.S. travel industry if travel restrictions were lifted,” said Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association (NTA), at the U.S.-Cuba Travel Summit, held March 24-26 in Cancun. The summit discussed potential business opportunities for travel professionals if the 48-year-old travel ban to Cuba ends.

The country received 2.4 million tourists in 2009. Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz said it could handle a sudden influx, estimated at 1 million U.S. visitors during the 12 months after travel restrictions are ended. Within five years, that number is expected to triple.

“We need to redistribute visitors throughout the year,” said Marrero, dismissing concerns that the 30 new hotels set to add 10,000 rooms by 2013 will be insufficient. Cuba’s current inventory of 50,000 hotel rooms, 1,500 tour buses and 10,000 rental cars is barely adequate to meet high-season demand.

Airlift could be a bottleneck. “There is going to be so much demand that it’s going to be hard getting seats,” said John Hanratty, CEO of Travel Impressions.

Still, most tour operators were optimistic. “Within three to six months, we could get trips underway after restrictions are lifted,” said Paula Twidale of Collette Vacations.

Kirby Jones of Alamar Associates cautioned patience. “Cuba does have problems. They have a bureaucracy, and it’s maddening at times,” he said.

The conference, presented by Alamar Associates in association with the NTA and US Tour Operators Association, coincided with the consideration by Congress of a law to lift the ban in effect since 1962.