Travel to Cuba

el capitolio havana

El Capitolio, the National Capital Building in Havana

It was supposed to be when Fidel Castro stepped down. Then it was supposed to be when a new U.S. president was elected.

Now, with Raúl Castro leading Cuba and President-elect Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the U.S., traveling to Cuba from the U.S. seems closer than it has been since the U.S. embargo against Cuba was imposed in 1962.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Obama indicated that he supports changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba, including a suspension of restrictions on family remittances, visits and humanitarian care packages from Cuban-Americans.

But many in the travel industry are hoping that is one step toward ultimately lifting all travel restrictions from the U.S. to Cuba.

“There’s a lot of hope that Obama will begin a new dialogue with Cuba and ease travel restrictions,” says author Christopher P. Baker, who has written five books on Cuba. “So far, he has committed himself solely to lifting restrictions on visits to Cuba (and remittances) by Cuban-Americans with family [there]. There’s a sense, though, that he may go further.”

christopher p baker

Christopher P. Baker, who has written five books on Cuba, in Costa Rica

As far as agents, such as Terry McCabe of Altour, are concerned, travel to Cuba couldn’t come too soon, especially as the industry heads into desperate times.

“There is a great deal of curiosity about Cuba,” says McCabe. “It’s basically an island caught in time, which will be very intriguing for a lot of travelers…It’s time-warp tourism, if you will.”

Baker told us earlier last year that if sanctions were lifted, 3 million U.S. citizens annually would visit Cuba within five years. Travel Agent first reported on the possibility of travel to Cuba back in April 2007, citing an Associated Press study that showed 62 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and that 40 percent would travel to Cuba if the ban was lifted.

“I think that we are getting closer to being able to sell the product. We’ve been inching toward it for a while now,” says McCabe. “And Americans [who] really want to go have been circumventing the restrictions for years now.”

ASTA’s Plea

In fact, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is calling on Obama to permit Americans to travel to Cuba. According to a statement issued at the end of the year, “ASTA believes that Americans would best be served by an elimination of current restrictions on travel to Cuba.”

Further, Chris Russo, ASTA’s president and chair, continued, “ASTA has long supported the principle that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction. While the U.S. government plays a legitimate and valuable role in exercising travel advisories to provide up-to-date information concerning the conditions in foreign countries, to use travel freedom as an instrument of foreign policy manipulation ultimately does harm to the very citizens it purports to protect.”

A Tale of Two Presidents

In a letter dated December 4, 2008, ASTA and a host of organizations from across the business community formally requested that the incoming Obama administration make immediate changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba, including a removal of the travel ban.

“Alas, [Obama has] publicly stated that he believes in maintaining broader restrictions as leverage to pressure Cuba to reform,” Baker told us. “I’d like to think that he’ll see common sense and lift travel restrictions entirely, but nothing hints that that’s in the cards yet.”

In fact, it was reported by Reuters back in July that Raúl Castro, during a speech commemorating the 55th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution, warned citizens of his country “to get accustomed to not receiving only good news.”

Castro also said during the same speech that Cuba’s military would remain strong in the face of the U.S., no matter what the outcome of the then-upcoming presidential election.

However, Baker does note Cuba’s plans to build 30 new hotels by 2010. “That can only be in anticipation of travel restrictions being lifted,” he says.

Competition in the Caribbean

On another level, the first of several golf course/marina/residential projects with villas and condos for sale to foreigners seems to be moving ahead. The first project, The Carbonera Club, will be outside Matanzas. The second will be at Bahia Honda.

But whereas agents might welcome Cuba travel with open arms, some tourism destinations may not want it to come anytime soon. After all, tourism for many destinations will be challenged in 2009 with the economic struggles still at full strength. The last obstacle certain destinations need is another vacation spot stealing their business. Specifically, the Dominican Republic and some parts of Mexico have a little to worry about if Cuba becomes an option.

“I believe that it will probably impact the entire region—certainly initially—but especially the Dominican Republic and, to a lesser extent, Cancun—two destinations that probably attract [that] type of tourism [and] tourists,” McCabe says.

However, if and when Cuba travel becomes a reality, it will still take the destination some time to become a viable luxury destination. And only when it enters that competitive market will it become a true threat to the rest of the Caribbean.

“The biggest impact on the rest of the region, in my opinion, won’t come until after there is a real government change and the luxury companies move in,” McCabe says. “I think until that happens, the destination will be more mid-market. But once the luxury hotels move in, along with American-owned hotels and tour companies, that is when we will see the biggest impact on the rest of the region.”