The prospect of unrestricted travel from the U.S. to Cuba has
resurfaced with vigor in recent months, and it seemed like a change
of American policy was finally within reach.
U.S. lawmakers had approved measures to strip federal funding
used to enforce the 40-year-old travel ban. And a separate bill
that would have nixed all travel restrictions to Cuba was on the
The efforts, however, faced a threatened presidential veto and
ultimately were abandoned.
Some say, however, that even if legislation eventually does
succeed, it remains uncertain whether it would really lead to a
boom in tourism that is being predicted by the travel industry.
Since lawmakers began targeting the travel ban in 2000, travel
industry organizations have anticipated significant opportunities
if the restrictions are lifted.
A pent-up desire to visit a country that has been off-limits for
four decades is expected to drive a tremendous influx of
The American Society of Travel Agents estimates Cuba could
attract 1 million U.S. visits within a year after travel
restrictions are lifted. Another study prepared for the Center for
International Policy estimates that at least 2.8 million Americans
could travel to Cuba by the third year of the ban being lifted.
A study by the Cuba Policy Foundation determined that travel
agents could gain $23.9 million selling Cuba as a destination
within five years following an end to the travel ban.
U.S. airlines, cruise ships and tour operators would see more
than $500 million in revenues and the creation of more than 3,200
jobs in one year if they were allowed to take American travelers to
Cuba, according to the study.
The foundation also predicts the travel industry would reap $1.9
billion in five years if U.S. hotels and hospitality providers were
allowed to operate in Cuba.
For an industry that has been struggling with economic recovery
since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, war in Iraq and the outbreak
of SARS , the numbers are enticing.
“Tour operators will be the first to benefit,” said Bob Whitley
of the U.S. Tour Operator Association. “They will be the first to
While it’s unclear when, if ever, the U.S.-Cuba travel ban might
be lifted, an eager industry is getting ready for the
This month, ASTA is putting the final touches on a Cuba
destination specialist course that will help travel agents sell
legal travel to Cuba.
The current embargo technically only prohibits financial
transactions in Cuba effectively barring most Americans from
traveling there but exceptions still are made for working
journalists, relatives of Cuban citizens and groups on
humanitarian, educational or cultural exchanges.
A rollout is expected by early December.
Meanwhile, the Association of Travel-Related Industry
Professionals was recently formed to serve as an umbrella for
travel organizations and businesses with an interest in changing
U.S. policy restricting travel to Cuba.
Members of the National Tour Association, the USTOA and ASTA
serve on the association’s board of directors, and a number of
agencies are also involved.
The organization recently sponsored a seminar in Cancun, Mexico,
on the Cuba issue, and led a delegation of travel professionals on
a trip to the island.
“All indications from various surveys show there is a
substantial amount of pent-up demand to visit Cuba,” said Bradley
Belt, the organization’s executive director. “The legitimate issue
is that Cuba has been investing in its infrastructure alongside
foreign companies. We’re confident that they will be able to handle
the expected influx and look forward to doing so.”
But others are more doubtful about expectations.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Economic Council
and an organizer of some of the first fam trips to the island, said
Cuba would be unequipped to handle a flood of U.S. tourists.
“They have the courage of their ignorance, some people, by
stating that within 12 months from the removal of the restrictions
there will be one million visitors to Cuba,” he said. “That is a
preposterous conclusion because Cuba does not have the
infrastructure to support it. That number was created because it
was a good sound bite for the media.”
Kavulich does believe U.S. policy on Cuba travel is destined to
change, but he believes that change will come gradually.
There are also other potential complications, he contends, that
would make a sudden and dramatic spike in U.S. visits unlikely.
“When the regulations and law do change they will do so
incrementally as opposed to all at once,” he said.
“The U.S. government simply saying that U.S. citizens can travel
to Cuba does not mean that the Cuban government is going to let
everybody go. The Cuban government is going to continue to be
highly selective about who they let in, as they are now.”
And there are complexities about exactly what legislation would
mean if signed into law.
Preventing the U.S. Treasury Department from enforcing the laws
on travel to Cuba would not lift the travel restrictions. So it
would technically still be considered illegal to travel there.
Questions would remain about whether Treasury could prosecute
people retroactively if funding is later reinstated, or if the
president has the ability to switch enforcement to another
If a bill were to pass that allowed carriers and tour operators
to take U.S. residents to Cuba, it would also raise complications.
While U.S. airlines and cruise lines would undoubtedly benefit from
any increase of traffic to Cuba, there are two sides to the
“There are issues of reciprocity,” Kavulich said. “If more U.S.
airlines, say, are allowed to go there, Cuba is going to want
Cubana airlines to come to U.S.”
The complexities of the Cuba embargo has not stopped travel
businesses from looking to the market should U.S. policy
In 1998, Radisson Hotel’s president, Peter Blyth, was examining
potential resort development at three sites in Cuba. Cuban
officials were eager to do business with the company, according to
media reports from the time. Five years have now passed and Blyth
has since retired.
“The general idea that he was communicating is that we would be
very interested in the Cuba market if it was possible to do
business there,” said Tom Polski, vice president of public
relations for Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, the parent company of
Radisson. “We are a growth-oriented company and Cuba would be a
good market to be in.”
With its hotel brands, network of travel agents, Cruise Holidays
ships, and T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in the Carlson family,
Polski said the company would have a lot to gain if there was a
change in policy.
“At some point, we’d be interested in having all of those
businesses in the Cuba market,” he said. “But we don’t have
anything that detailed at this point. It just gets too speculative
because of the law.”
While U.S. companies wait, foreign competitors are
Sol Melia, also a consultant and sponsor of ASTA’s Cuba
specialist course, manages 23 properties within Cuba. Its 2001
revenues were $800 million and it now manages close to 33 percent
of the hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade
“There has certainly been frustration in many sectors, of which
the lodging is one,” said Belt. “No doubt they see Cuba as a very
ripe business opportunity. Forty or fifty years ago Cuba was the
biggest attraction in the Caribbean and the U.S. had the biggest
For the first half of 2003, Cuba was the second most visited
country in the Caribbean, according to statistics from the
Caribbean Tourism Organization.
If restrictions were lifted, Cuba would become the most popular
Caribbean destination, according to Hugh Riley, marketing director
for the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
“We suspect that people who have never visited the Caribbean
will in fact visit Cuba,” he said. “Getting people to visit the
Caribbean will be beneficial to the entire region.”
Still some destinations fear that if U.S. citizens flocked to
Cuba, the impact would hurt tourism elsewhere in the Caribbean.
“Of course it is a concern for everyone, not only us but all
Caribbean destinations,” said Nelly Cruz, a spokesperson for the
Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
In part to prepare for Cuba’s eventual opening, Puerto Rico has
launched a strategic plan that aims to increase the country’s share
of the Caribbean market by 17 percent.
“We have to increase our participation and better our services
and update our product,” Cruz said. “We are growing what already
exists to prepare if something does happen.”
For those that already do business in the Caribbean and are
looking for new opportunities, there may be business risks that
come from over-selling Cuba.
“Travel agents need to be careful about cannibalizing existing
destinations for the sake of creating a new destination,” Kavulich
said. “For some hotels, airlines and cruises, simply adding another
destination could create a negative impact in revenues from