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Cuba Tourism

Stakes are high for Cuba tourism in the hands of the next US president

Hazel Heyer  Sep 08, 2008

Orlando, Florida (eTN) - At THETRADESHOW of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) being held in here September 7-9, tourism opportunities for Cuba as a tourism destination for US travelers has become a hot topic. Public opinion polls indicate that two-thirds of US travelers, including 55 percent of Cuban-Americans favor an end to all restrictions on travel to Cuba. And politics will definitely play a major role in the way Cubans and Cuban-Americans vacation.

Cuba has a new president and the United States will soon have a new president. These two events, along with the shift in voting in Florida among Cubans, are expected to play pivotal roles in the future of Cuba-US tourism relations.

Former leader Fidel Castro was ill for a long period and his brother Raoul Castro was made the provisional president until he was appointed president in February during the election of the assembly (including the council of states) done every five years.

"There is a definite change in Cuba especially with the arrival of Raoul Castro, who is a pragmatist and a person who does things, although not very charismatic," said prominent Miami-based lawyer Antonio Zamora, Of Counsel, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey.

“Castro does not have an agenda of making speeches 7 hours long, tantalizing the masses; but as the former minister of defense for 50 years, he has built the best armed forces of the Americas, except the United States of course.

“Because he is very practical, people believe he will change Cuba, not the political way but the economic way following the pattern of Vietnam or China so that people will have a better standard of living.”

According to Zamora, Raoul Castro would like to be “remembered as the guy who brought Cubans a better standard of living. He thinks that this should be his legacy."

Meanwhile, in America, if Senator Barack Obama gets elected, things will pan out smoothly for Cuba. "Obama permits unrestricted Cuban American family travel and remittances and the holding of bilateral negotiations without preconditions,” Fund for Reconciliation and Development executive director John McAuliff said. “An AP/Ipsos poll reported that 40 percent of Americans want to vacation in Cuba. ASTA testimony to the International Trade Commission predicted that within two years after restrictions end, there will be an increase of 1,798,000 visits by Americans.”

McAuliff added: “McCain supports the limit imposed by President Bush in 2004 of a single two week trip every three years for reunions with immediate family. Obama has also pledged bilateral negotiations without preconditions in which travel is likely to be an early topic."

According to McAuliff, McCain will shift towards normalizing relations with Cuba against the prevailing US travel policy encouraging disrespect for the law and isolating our country. "The US and Cuba should both honor international human rights principles by ending illegitimate restrictions on travel of their own citizens and by providing normal visa entry to the other's,” he said.

If Obama wins, the Democratic platform will follow that Cubans will be allowed to travel to Cuba once a year, said Zamora. He said that will be followed by a push from [US] Congress to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. "The ambience in Congress will be more favorable to changes in Cuban policy. Note that in my past conversations with McCain, he said he was totally opposed to the embargo. He's one of the leading individuals in the US who normalized relations in Vietnam. Now, he is for normalizing Cuban relations too just like he did with Vietnam. Unfortunately, McCain is surrounded by Cuban-American hardliners. If allowed however, he will do pretty much the same thing as Obama," Zamora confided.

From 2000 to 2008, racial landscape in Florida has evolved. The ethnic majority situation in Miami or Florida shows that non-Cuban Hispanics (such as Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Columbians) now have more registered voters than Cuban Americans, Zamora revealed.

Also for the first time, since the last ‘70s early ‘80s, Cuban-Americans who were mostly Democrats then changed parties to become Republicans, have been terribly disappointed by George W. Bush as their expectations were not met in the last eight years. When most of these hardliners in their late ‘60s later passed away, significant changes in the Cuban-American population have taken place in Miami, especially reflected in districts 18 and 25 in Miami, according to Zamora. He added: "Therefore, whoever is elected will make a huge difference for Cuba. The embargo, as you know, is approved or not approved by Congress, and not by the president of the US. Whoever wins in the local elections, whether Democrat or Republican, will surely impact travel to Cuba."

Currently, some 30,000 to 50,000 Americans travel to Cuba officially, meaning as general licensed individuals such diplomats, professional researchers and bonafide journalists. By current law, these individuals are not allowed to spend more than $190 a day in Cuba, while Cubans who travel from the US can only spend $50 a day. Further, it is hard to understand how one cannot return to the US carrying Cuban cigars and rum when they can come back with hundred pages of the entire speech of Che Guevarra or Fidel Castro's, asked McAuliff.

The most important thing to know is that Cuba has now granted passports to over 200,000 Cuban-Americans after the recent conference held in Havana. For years, dual citizenship has not been allowed. But there is currently a growing phenomenon in the US with 2 million Americans now holding two passports.

Currently, Ya'lla Tours USA operates humanitarian trips to Cuba, under a humanitarian license issued to Salve Regina by the US Treasury Department. Participants will carry medical supplies, clothing, school supplies, over-the counter pharmaceuticals and hygiene products to share with the Cuban people travelers will meet while touring the country. "But we don't do beach packages, which are the most famous in Cuba, as we go by what we are mandated to do as travel agent," said Ronen Paldi, president of Ya'lla Tours.

Cubans are also thinking of competing with neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic for golf. D.R. gets more tourists because of the fact that they have more than 20 golf courses. "So Cubans are now trying to figure out a way to finance their golf courses on fee simple basis. At the ministerial level, and council of ministers, mega projects over $10 million must be approved by the council. Hopefully, they will approve the set up for golf by the end of the year," said Zamora.

Indicators suggest that if 30 more hotels, and another 40,000 rooms are to go online in Cuba, opening golf courses will not make any sense if Americans will not come. "If American investors are not going to build, it will be useless," said the Miami lawyer who talked about a 49-49 stake rule in the new investment environment in real estate that prevails in Cuba in which Americans can participate.

Cuba is also building a 1500-slip marina at the end of the island. "This won't work without the support and presence of Americans in Cuba. Raoul Castro is trying to negotiate. Cuba will not make headway without the US, in all certainty," closed Zamora.

Stakes are high for Cuba tourism in the hands of the next US president
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