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Seeing the recent photos of Air Force One landing in Havana and President Obama and his family touring the island, I found it hard not to feel a giddy excitement over the potential for increased travel to Cuba. I’m sure there are those who are against lifting travel sanctions between the U.S. and Cuba, but if you feel as I do — that travel is the best way to promote peace and understanding between nations — then these images have been a long time coming.
Even as the cold war between our two countries seems to be winding down, like with any war, the next important step is to successfully manage the peace. As expected, while President Obama took his first steps on Cuban soil, U.S. travel companies were already announcing plans for expanding their presence on the island. Major hotel companies, cruise lines, airlines and OTAs have all gone on the record in recent weeks with time frames for entering Cuba. Although I see this enhanced business engagement as a generally positive — and inevitable — step, I hope there will be a careful and conscientious expansion in Cuba that creates a sustainable tourism market that can be a model for the future.
Certainly, some infrastructure issues need to be addressed before any significant increase in tourism can take place. As exciting as it is to think of U.S. travel brands in Cuba, ideally, companies are going to pause and consider the best foundation on which to build a thriving destination. Basics such as adequate power, water and waste removal should be updated using the most modern methods available. The financial benefits of this travel boom should be shared with all the people of Cuba, and corruption should not be tolerated as “just the way things are done here.” Natural resources and historic sights should be strictly protected now, instead of waiting until damage has already been done.
As members of the travel industry, we have a rare opportunity to participate in the rebirth of a major tourism destination. It’s our responsibility to not squander this chance. Let’s show the rest of the world that tourism not only brings financial rewards, but that it can be done in a way that serves as an example for all industries.