Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays

Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays
By A. Pawlowski, CNN
August 25, 2010 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)

(CNN) -- Word that the U.S. government could soon loosen travel
restrictions to Cuba may have some American travelers imagining New
Year's in Havana or a spring break on the island's famed Varadero Beach.

Not so fast.

The proposed changes would essentially reinstate measures that were in
place under the Clinton administration -- a far cry from an end to the
travel ban, which would require an act of Congress.

Obama administration preparing to loosen rules on Cuba travel

Talk of the new rules also comes as Cuba has agreed to free 52 political
prisoners by mid-November, but it's not necessarily a signal that a
complete lifting of U.S. travel restrictions is near.

"It certainly could indicate that the climate is more appropriate than
it was before the prisoner release started," said Shasta Darlington, a
CNN international correspondent based in Havana.

"[But] one is an executive decision and the other is a legislative
decision. I don't think you can tie them together too closely."

'Frisson of the forbidden'

For now, Washington is focusing on "people-to-people" exchanges under
which academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams
could travel to Cuba as a way to promote cultural exchanges and programs
with universities.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the issue is, the move is already
drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Cuban-American politicians against loosening travel, aid rules

So while European and Canadian visitors continue to flock to Cuba for
its tropical climate, Spanish colonial architecture and exotic flair,
the island officially remains off-limits to U.S. tourists.

Not that that's ever stopped some Americans from going anyway, bypassing
the restrictions by hopping on a flight to Havana from Canada, Mexico
and other destinations.

"It's partly the frisson of the forbidden; the fact that it is off
limits and there's some kind of excitement quality for a lot of
tourists," said Christopher Baker, a journalist who has visited Cuba
dozens of times and is the author of the "Moon Cuba" guidebook.

"At the same time, I run into quite a number of Americans who are kind
of thumbing their nose at what they consider inappropriate,
unconstitutional restrictions."

The curiosity factor

Washington severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and has had an
economic embargo in place since 1962. Americans seeking to travel to the
island nation must obtain permission to do so and must fit into special
categories, like journalists or people visiting a close relative.

Last year, more than 67,000 U.S. citizens obtained approval from the
U.S. government to enter Cuba by air, according to the U.S. Department
of Commerce's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

iReport: Send us your photos of Cuba

Supporters of the ban say it needs to continue to put the pressure on
the Castro regime, but an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll
found that 64 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should
allow citizens to travel to Cuba.

Travel agents report getting a fair amount of interest from clients
about the island, though the only help they can offer is to refer them
to operators outside the United States. Some travel agents say U.S.
tourists are eager to see Cuba as it is now, before any major loosening
of restrictions.

"Americans aren't going for the beach vacation. Americans are going to
Cuba out of curiosity," said Terry McCabe, national director of leisure
for Altour in Paramus, New Jersey.

"Once you leave the resort areas along the beach, Cuba is a time
capsule. I think within 18 to 24 months after they open it up for [U.S.]
tourism, some of that will start to change."

It's estimated that up to 500,000 additional U.S. tourists could pour
into Cuba the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, according
to a study prepared for the Cuba Policy Foundation. That number would
almost triple five years after the end of the restrictions.

"We're 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there are very few
Americans here. That would clearly change quickly," said Darlington, the
CNN correspondent.

Cuba's splashy marketing

But even without a significant number of U.S. travelers, tourism is a
vital industry for Cuba.

The country welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2009, according
to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. About 38 percent were from
Canada, 34 percent were from Europe and 28 percent were from other
regions of the world.

Havana devotes "significant resources" to building new tourist
facilities and renovating historic structures for use in tourism,
according to the U.S. Department of State.

It also markets itself aggressively to visitors. The Cuba Tourist Board
in Canada, for example, offers a splashy web page tempting tourists with
Cuba's "breathtaking beaches and scenery; fascinating history; rich
culture; ecological wonders and more."

That's something American travelers might see if some lawmakers have
their way.

Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that
would end the travel ban on Americans to Cuba. The legislation appears
to be stalled in the House of Representatives, but it received the
thumbs up from the American Society of Travel Agents, which says
Americans should be allowed to globetrot without restrictions.

Time: Will the White House fight to end the Cuba travel ban?

"Were the American people allowed to travel to Havana, as they currently
are allowed to travel to Pyongyang, Tehran, Khartoum and other cities
whose nations' leaders are publicly opposed to American interests, they
could serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values to the Cuban
people," said Colin Tooze, the group's vice president of government affairs.

For now, that will have to wait.

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