Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tourist Development Council study looks at travel to Cuba

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tourist Development Council study looks at travel to Cuba
BY MANDY MILES Citizen Staff
"If and when..."

The words have preceded "Cuba conversations" in South Florida for more
than 50 years as travel experts, tourism officials, business owners and
boaters discuss the possibilities and realities of travel "when Cuba
opens," and "If the embargo is lifted."

But despite the prevalence of such conversations from Key West to
Kissimmee, researchers with the Monroe County Tourist Development
Council learned recently that interest in Cuban travel restrictions is
not as widespread as South Florida residents may have thought.

"In reality, only 8 percent of households, or two of five active
travelers, are interested in Cuba as a travel destination," Jessica
Bennett, market research director for the TDC, said during Wednesday's
Key West Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Bennett shared the results of a recent TDC survey of "U.S. Travelers'
Intentions and Perceptions Toward Cuba Travel."

The survey was the TDC's latest move toward evaluating, understanding
and reacting to the age-old "if and when" possibility.

Bennett reminded Chamber members that the TDC established its Opening of
Cuba Committee back in 2000 with the goal of creating a strategic
marketing plan to prevent travelers from skipping over the Florida Keys
and flying straight from Miami or other metropolitan airports to Havana.

That marketing plan was finalized in 2009, when U.S. policy changes
increased travel opportunities from the U.S. to Cuba. In that time
period, Cuba's tourism has increased by 17 percent and is still on the
rise, Bennett said.

"My role in developing the plan was to talk about how U.S. travelers
could react to an open Cuba," Bennett said. "There were so many
questions, but really no good research telling us who would actually
want to go to Cuba."

So the TDC decided to ask the questions and find the answers.

Bennett and others from the TDC evaluated the results of more than 2,500
surveys collected from active U.S. travelers with an annual household
income of $50,000 or more.

"We wanted to know what they'd heard about Cuba, and what would make
them want to go there," she said.

But the researchers were somewhat surprised to learn that "most U.S.
travelers -- three out of four -- haven't heard anything about Cuba, and
only two of five active travelers are interested in Cuba, Bennett said,
adding that aside from Florida, the states with the most interest were
California, Georgia and New York.

"The longevity of the embargo has affected the American psyche when it
comes to travel planning," Bennett said.

But even without a keen American interest in the off-limits island, Cuba
is welcoming more than three million visitors per year, mainly drawing
tourists from Canada and Germany.

So the next question was "why," Bennett said.

"That's what's most interesting to me," she said, pointing out that the
answers were about the same for all U.S. travelers, regardless of their
income, age or gender.

Nearly all travelers surveyed said they would go to Cuba for the history
and culture; "just to see it," and for the beaches.

Fortunately for the Florida Keys, 81 percent of travelers said they
would consider a "Florida Keys plus Cuba trip," Bennett said, adding
that the Keys' proximity to Cuba is a key advantage over other Florida
cities that would offer similar options.

In addition to the surveys, the TDC's marketing plan includes an
analysis of Cuba's strengths and weaknesses with regard to tourism.

Cuba's strengths include its island climate and beaches, its colonial
architecture and cultural history, "and it's perceived as being safe for
visitors," Bennett said.

On the flip side, Cuba also struggled with an aging infrastructure
system, especially in its hotels, which find it difficult to keep
workers and often fall short of customer service expectations.

"As a result, they have a low incidence of repeat visitors," she said.

The Keys continued viability as a destination "if and when" they are
competing with Cuba, likely will come down to transportation options
between the two islands, Bennett said.

Mike Morawski asked Bennett whether the Keys stood to lose its weekend
visitors from Miami and the mainland if Cuba becomes an option.

Bennett reported that people in South Florida weren't necessarily more
interested in traveling to Cuba, but are interested in going there
sooner. In other words, the first flights to an open Cuba will likely be
filled with South Floridians in years one, two and three, she said.

"The rest of the country will wait to make sure it's safe."

When asked about cruise ships going to Cuba instead of Key West, Bennett
said, "We found that interest in Cuba via cruise ship was significantly
lower than interest in a Florida plus Cuba trip," she said, reminding
the audience of Cuba's resources and infrastructure, which are currently
inadequate to handle the pressures of a cruise port.

Now armed with research and revelations, the Florida Keys and its
tourism officials will be ready -- if and when Cuba opens.

For a complete copy of Bennett's report, email

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