Havana or Bust: How U.S.-Cuba Relations Will Impact Tourism
Mar 23, 2015
When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, dozens of flights
connected the airports of Miami and Havana on a daily basis, and the
luxury hotels and glittery nightclubs of the Cuban capital were as
common a destination for middle-class Americans as the casinos of Las
Vegas are today. The U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, imposed in 1960,
put an abrupt end to all that, creating an anomaly that has long defied
geography, technology and globalization: Even as American travelers have
grown increasingly familiar with distant locations in Europe, China,
India and elsewhere, they have been legally banned from visiting the
largest island in the Caribbean, a mere 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
That is about to change. In December, the Obama administration relaxed
those travel restrictions, signaling the beginning of the end of the
travel ban — and, quite possibly, the re-emergence of a major market for
American air carriers, hotel chains, rental car firms and the like. What
impact will these changes in U.S. regulations have on short- and
longer-term U.S. travel to Cuba? And what further changes will have to
be made before Cuba re-emerges as the largest U.S. travel destination in
The good news for U.S. travelers is that the new regulations allow
Americans to visit the island for any of a dozen specific reasons,
including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining
a special license from the U.S. government, as was previously required.
Travelers may now import up to $400 worth of goods per person from Cuba
on their return to the United States, including $100 worth of cigars and
rum. U.S. citizens can now use U.S. credit and debit cards, and U.S.
financial firms can now open accounts at Cuban banks and enroll
merchants there. As of March 1, MasterCard begin to do so in Cuba.
The bad news is that it is still illegal for a U.S. citizen to visit
Cuba with no other goal in mind but to enjoy a week of sun and surf.
A Unique Combination
To fully relax the U.S. travel ban will require the repeal by Congress
of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which extended the territorial
application of the initial embargo to apply to foreign companies trading
with Cuba, and penalized foreign companies that allegedly "trafficked"
in property formerly owned by American citizens but confiscated by Cuba.
Assuming that Congress does eventually repeal Helms-Burton, does Cuba
really have the potential to re-assert itself as a major tourist
destination for Americans?
"It is not easy to do business in a country that is in transition."–Hugo
Stephen Kobrin, a Wharton emeritus management professor, notes that Cuba
benefits from a unique combination of advantages: It is both
geographically close to the U.S., yet exotic because of the history of
its relationship with the United States. While it's only a one-hour
flight from Miami International Airport, Cuba is considered "fascinating
… forbidden fruit" because of its long isolation from the currents of
globalization, which has left many of its landscapes suspended in time.
Over the past several decades, Cuba has developed a significant appeal
for budget-minded European and Canadian travelers attracted by this
spirit of "adventure tourism." Such travelers are willing to accept
relatively spartan facilities well below the standards demanded by
middle-tier and upscale American travelers.
"If and when Cuba opens up [completely to the United States]," Kobrin
asks, "will they have the infrastructure to handle" the coming surge of
travelers who demand more luxurious amenities Twitter ?
Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group,
which manages such initiatives as the Cuba Study Group Microfinance
Fund, the Cuban Enterprise Fund, and the Cuba IT and Social Media
Initiative, argues that Cuban tourism should benefit not just from its
proximity to the United States, but "its cultural affinity" to the U.S.
Hispanic community, and from nostalgia about the good old days when
flying off to Cuba for a brief vacation was commonplace.
Apart from Havana, with its penchant for 1950s-era American cars, Cuba
is an island of natural beauty, endowed with "some nice beaches" and a
significant natural diversity, says Bilbao, whose organization is based
in Washington, D.C. Moreover, Cuba is "one of the safest places for an
American tourist to visit," in stark contrast to such Latin American
destinations as Brazil, Venezuela and some Caribbean islands.
Eddie Lubbers, who runs the Cuban Travel Network, an online travel
portal, agrees with that assessment. Hosted in the Netherlands, his
company's website enables travelers from the U.S. to book land-tour
reservations in Cuba, but not to buy air tickets to that country.
Although "tourism" by Americans is still illegal, if they fit into one
of the 12 authorized categories, American travelers to Cuba are not
officially considered "tourists" by the Treasury Department's Office of
Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), which oversees such travel.
The process of qualifying for such an OFAC-authorized category is
"self-censoring," says Lubbers, making it more unlikely than in the past
that anyone will be found to have been violating U.S. law. Not only has
supervision of the rules become more lax, but it's also become easier
for Americans to mix the pleasures of being a tourist in Cuba with the
business of building "people-to-people" ties. Many U.S. visitors who
travel to Cuba ostensibly for cultural, business, humanitarian and other
theoretically non-touristic goals engage in a wide range of leisure
activities. Such diversions include catamaran tours on the turquoise
waters of the Caribbean Sea; walking and driving tours of Havana seated
in vintage 1950s American vehicles, and excursions to such remote
tobacco-growing locales as the Viñales Valley, a unique landscape dotted
with gigantic "mogotes" — karst formations — "surrounding a lovely
valley with rich red earth and majestic palm trees," according to the
Cuba Travel Network site. Travel agents say that those U.S. travelers
(not to be confused with "tourists") who spend at least some of their
time on the island pursuing cultural, business or humanitarian goals are
free to enjoy dinner at a restaurant in a historic Havana fortress,
listen to salsa performers or attend a "phenomenal show at the Cabaret
Parisien" — all without violating the spirit of the waning U.S. embargo.
"It will take time for Cuba to be fully ready to take advantage of these
new conditions, but they are working on it…."–Hugo Cancio
Potholes and Incomplete Highways
Although Lubbers lauds the availability of compact European-made rental
cars, Bilbao notes that getting around Cuba can be a challenge. "The
[road] signs are nonexistent, there are large potholes and the central
highway remains incomplete." Not only do the amenities in most Cuban
hotels lag behind those in other Caribbean locations, the phones don't
work, says Bilbao. The Obama administration's recent move to allow U.S.
phone companies to do business in Cuba should help in this regard, along
with the arrival of U.S. credit card companies to provide services on
"It is not easy to do business in a country that is in transition," says
Cuba-born Hugo Cancio, chief executive of Miami-based Fuego Enterprises,
which represents U.S. companies that want to do business in Cuba. "Cuba
has built a very solid infrastructure in European tourism markets,"
Cancio notes. "While there are several 'five-star' hotels," — mostly
operated by the Sol Meliá group of Spain, which has 26 hotels in Cuba —
"there are not enough five-star hotels to accommodate an explosion of
American tourists." A lot of private homes are also being turned into
hotels — properties that Cancio described as "wonderful" because of
their unique, local charm. Giant chains such as Hilton International and
Marriott have issued statements indicating that they look forward to
opening hotels in Cuba, presumably after the embargo is lifted.
"It will take time for Cuba to be fully ready to take advantage of these
new conditions," Cancio concludes, "But they are working on it. No one
was expecting the announcements of the relaxation of controls…. There
will be gradual change. When the embargo is officially lifted, the
Cubans will be ready."
A 30% Uptick
How vast is the potential for Cuba tourism in the longer term? Lubbers
says that after President Obama relaxed controls on American travel in
Cuba in December, "our business went up 30% in January." Virtually
overnight, "the United States has become our No. 1 market," he adds,
followed by Canada, Great Britain and Germany, and other European
countries that had been his main sources of business. According to
Lubbers, even before January's announcement by President Obama, American
travelers were always among his agency's top five sources of business.
Many were flying to Cuba via stopovers through international cities that
offer scheduled flights to Havana, especially Panama City, Panama;
Cancun, Mexico, and Nassau, Bahamas. In all, some 124,000 American
travelers were authorized to travel to Cuba last year, a drop in the
bucket compared with the 20 million or so Americans who traveled to
Mexico in 2013.
Within weeks, Lubbers expects his Cuba Travel Network will be able to
offer Americans the option of purchasing tickets online for the
chartered U.S.-Cuba flights that are already licensed. Soon thereafter,
anticipates Lubbers, U.S. carriers such as Jet Blue, American Airlines
and Delta will start offering scheduled flights to Havana from U.S.
airports, especially Miami. Those airlines have already announced their
desire to provide such service. "That is now only a matter of bilateral
discussions" between U.S. and Cuban officials, he notes. For that to
happen, however, the embargo first has to be ended officially by Congress.
"Cubans are unlikely to make the instant transition to capitalism. The
Eastern Europeans were revolting against external domination, but in
Cuba, [the adoption of Communism] was an internal process."–Stephen Kobrin
How long will that take? Naturally, no one knows for sure. Cancio says
that he is "optimistic that before the end of [the Obama]
administration, the embargo will be lifted." Some observers believe that
the embargo will more likely be lifted quickly if the next president is
a Democrat, but the Congress is controlled by Republicans, Cancio notes.
Even if the next president turns out to be a Republican, Cancio is
confident that U.S.-Cuba economic ties — in the tourism sector and
elsewhere — will continue to deepen because of growing support among a
broad cross-section of the exile community in the United States. "The
majority of Cubans in Miami want to lift the embargo," he says, noting
that 90% of the businesses that are flourishing in Cuba today are
"Miami-owned by Americans." Anybody who visits the island and chats with
Cubans who live there knows that investments have been made by Cubans
who live abroad, Cancio says. "The small and medium-size private
businesses that are developing [in Cuba] are mostly doing so thanks to
capital that is being invested by those who live outside the country.
Some experts have estimated the rate of remittances to Cuba at $2
billion annually, and close to 50% of that is being invested, or planned
for investment, in small businesses."
Faquiry Diaz Cala, a Miami-based venture capitalist and private-equity
investor, says that "tourism is a great way to get dollars into the
Cuban economy. It will spur a significant number of small tour
operators" and promote further development, as well as more conversions
of small homes into European-style bed-and-breakfast establishments and
small restaurants — known as "paladares" — for travelers "looking for
history" and an authentic experience, rather than for familiar high-end
Kobrin wonders how quickly the Cuban government will commit itself to
opening up to foreign investment so that it can attract the large-scale
capital influx that Cuba will need in order to develop a modern
infrastructure, which in turn would attract a higher volume of
travelers, including upscale travelers.
Unlike the peoples of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the
Berlin Wall, "the Cubans are unlikely to make the instant transition to
capitalism," Kobrin suggests. "The Eastern Europeans were revolting
against external domination" — that is to say, against the communism
imposed on them by the Soviet Union shortly after World War II. "But in
Cuba, it was an internal process." Moreover, despite the hardships
suffered by the Cuban people over the decades, the Cuban state has not
entirely lost the support of its population, and "they are not likely to
ditch the state-controlled system" in its entirety. In addition, the
normalization of Cuba's economic relationship with the U.S. will require
the two countries to settle all claims for properties expropriated by
the Cuban regime in defiance of international law. More positively,
despite their pride in going it alone for decades, the Cuban people have
"very mixed feelings about the United States," including affection for
such emblematic symbols of American culture as baseball and classic cars.
Cancio advises the travel industry in other Caribbean countries not to
be afraid of the coming wave of tourism to Cuba. For Puerto Rico and the
smaller islands of the Caribbean, the key to survival, he advises, will
be to promote Cuba as one of several multiple destinations in the travel
packages of the future. One example might be to market trips that
comprise two or three nights in San Juan, Puerto Rico, followed by a few
nights in Havana and then another few nights at a third nearby
destination. Rather than struggle against the tide of Cuba's resurgence,
he says, the other islands of the Caribbean would do better to embrace
Cuba as a partner in their joint efforts to expand the appeal of the
Source: What the Changes in U.S.-Cuba Relations Mean for Tourism -