CubaNews / September 2003
By Larry Luxner
Israel and Cuba haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1973, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of Hebrew-speaking Israelis from touring the Caribbean island anyway.
“We assume that 10,000 Israelis have al-ready visited Cuba,” said Daniel Faians, president and CEO of Polaris Group, a large travel wholesaler and airline agent based in Tel Aviv.
“Overall traffic from Israel to Latin America is estimated at 80,000 per year, of which half are mochileros (backpackers) on limited budgets. But those who go to Cuba aren’t mochileros. They stay in deluxe hotels and travel in private cars with private guides.”
Faians, who spoke to CubaNews by phone from Tel Aviv, said “Israelis by nature are very inquisitive and are always looking for new destinations. Cuba appeals to the Israeli market because it’s something new and unusual.”
He said that Cuba is almost never sold as a single destination, but is usually combined with a Central American country like Costa Rica or Guatemala, with tourists spending one week in each place.
Israelis generally pay $1,000 to $1,500 for a seven-day tour of Cuba. That includes accommodations at four- and five-star Meliá hotels, but excludes airfare, which can cost another $1,100 or more. Israelis bound for Cuba can either fly Iberia from Tel Aviv to Havana via Madrid, or take El Al from Tel Aviv to Toron-to, then Grupo Taca from Toronto to Havana.
Faians said his agency pushes the main attractions — Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba — but lets his clients spend the last two nights in Varadero, so they can at least see what a Caribbean beach destination is like.
Unlike their European or Canadian counterparts, said Faians, “Israelis don’t visit Cuba as a vacation destination, and they generally don’t go to the beaches. If they want that, they can go to Turkey, which is a lot cheaper and closer. Instead, they’re looking for the cultural experience, and I must say that we have had a very good performance with Cuba re-garding services and infrastructure. We have not had even one complaint in the five years we’ve been selling Cuba, which is amazing.”
The fact that Havana and Jerusalem lack diplomatic ties hasn’t affected such tourism in the least, he added. Anti-Semitism is definitely not a problem, and there’s no personal hostility toward Israel in Cuba — despite the reg-ime’s friendship with the Arab world and its position equating Zionism with racism.
“The Cuban people don’t know much about Israel and the current situation in the Middle East, so they just see us as other tourists, like Germans or Spaniards,” he said. “And we don’t have any problems with the authorities. If you arrive with an Israeli passport, you get the same treatment as anybody else.”
One thing Faians avoids, he told us, is any involvement with Israeli investors in Cuba. Currently, the biggest one is Tel Aviv-based Grupo BM, which is pouring millions of dollars into an 18-building office complex.
The $200 million project, known as the Miramar Trade Center, is managed locally by Inmobiliaría Monte Barreto S.A., an unusually secretive entity registered in Panama. The company’s chief is Enrique Rottenberg, an Argentine Jew living in Havana. Rottenberg, who refused to talk with CubaNews during a visit there in 2002, told us again in a phone conversation last month that he would give out no information about BM’s activities — not even to say how much of the 180,000-sq-meter project is finished.
According to an official pamphlet, however, the project is being built in five phases and should be done by 2008. Last year, Tel Aviv newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported that Habas H.Z. Investments paid Grupo BM $30 million for a 15% stake in the project.
Dozens of state-run trading companies, foreign firms and embassies already have offices in the center, which is adorned with Israeli art and is on par with what a visitor might find along Brickell Avenue in Miami.
One thing’s for sure: despite its rather obvious location along 3ra Avenida between Calle 70 and 80, the Miramar Trade Center won’t be on the must-see list for Israeli tourists — or tourists of any nation, for that matter. Only people who have official business there are allowed on the premises.