CubaNews / November 2003
By Larry Luxner
The Mexican resort of Cancún played host Oct. 16-18 to an unprecedented U.S.-Cuba Travel Conference that end-ed with a one-day, “fully hosted” trip by American travel executives to Havana.
The brazen junket to the Cuban capital took place only a week after President Bush announced he would crack down on all unauthorized travel to the Caribbean island. Sponsored by the newly formed Associa-tion of Travel Related Professionals (ATRIP), the event was organized by veteran Cuba con-sultant Kirby Jones, president of Washington-based Alamar Associates.
“The big news of the conference is that there was a conference at all,” Jones told CubaNews. “The topics discussed were not new, but the fact is, this was the first time in 40 years the U.S. travel sector actually got together with their Cuban counterparts.”
The keynote speaker in Cancún was Cuban Tourism Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz, who headed a delegation that included executives of state-owned hotel chains Cubanacán, Gran Caribe, Horizontes and Habaguanex.
Also represented were travel agency Havanatur, the Civil Aeronautics Institute, Cubana de Aviación and Spain’s Grupo Sol Meliá.
“Politics were checked at the door. This was business,” quipped Daniel Aruca, executive VP of Miami-based Marazul Charters. “With everything that’s going on right now, this conference was very much needed.”
Said Jones: “There was very honest discussion about the possiblities. The Cubans are very realistic and matter-of-fact. They make their plans based on the embargo not being lifted, because until it it is, it isn’t.”
Ferradaz noted that the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal travel to Cuba would have little impact on Cuba’s tourism industry, since 55% of the 1.9 million visitors expected this year are coming from Europe, and another 20% from Canada.
According to Cuban officials, 180,883 people visited the island from the U.S. last year, of which 107,800 were Cuban-Americans and 78,833 were U.S. citizens not of Cuban origin. During the first nine months of 2003, according to those officials, 173,800 Americans visited Cuba, of which 115,000 were Cuban-Ameri-cans and the remaining 57,800 U.S. citizens not of Cuban descent.
On the other hand, some industry officials expressed concern about being buried in “an avalanche” of American visitors should the travel ban be lifted.
“Pent-up demand is going to be huge” after decades of restrictions on travel to Cuba, said Robert Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, which represents firms moving 10 million tourists a year.
“We have to avoid an avalanche because that is going to affect quality,” said Antonio Díaz, vice-director of travel operator Havanatur.
Cuba’s rapidly growing tourist industry now accounts for 40% of all foreign exchange earnings. The island expects to receive 1.9 million tourists this year, most of them from Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Great Britain.
Yet the industry is still mid-sized by regional standards, with 40,000 hotel rooms on the entire island. Cancún alone has 26,000 rooms.
Jones told CubaNews that 80 people paid $950 or more apiece to attend the Cancún event. He said that a loophole in U.S. travel restrictions let participants fly to Cuba legally for the day, because they were fully hosted and therefore did not spend a dime.
The 40 or so participants who opted for the one-day excursion to Cuba were taken on a whirlwind tour of Havana’s hotels, guided through the cobblestone streets of Old Ha-vana and transported in a convoy of antique cars and bright orange Cuban “coco-taxis.”
They also got to meet Fidel Castro.
During the two-hour surprise encounter — closed to all but a few journalists — Castro told his American visitors that if the U.S. travel ban were lifted, they’d find tourism employees to be well-trained and educated.
“Even kitchen workers” in Cuba are high-school graduates, Castro told the group. And all hotel staff must have good general knowledge on a broad range of subjects, he said. “If not, how will they speak with the tourists?”
Participants seem determined to achieve their goal of getting the travel ban lifted.
“We’re now asking when, and not if” U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba will be eliminated, said Matt Grayson, government affairs director for the National Tour Association.
Added Michael Zuccato of Los Angeles-based Cuba Travel Services: “We are very hopeful that we can get something done this year” to end the restrictions. “If not, we will keep pushing. Americans should be allowed to travel anywhere in the world they wish.”
Zuccato, who is also president of ATRIP, said preliminary studies by U.S. firms show that as soon as restrictions on travel are lifted, at least one million Americans would try to visit Cuba in the first year, rising to 2.5 million a year thereafter. This translates into $1 billion in revenues for U.S. companies and thousands of additional jobs.
Meanwhile, charter firms that handle most of the Miami-Havana flights to Cuba complain that U.S. officials are unnecessarily bothering their passengers — even though they have valid OFAC permits to visit Cuba.
“Yesterday I had 15 passengers on a plane, and seven officers at the gate to make sure everyone had a valid travel license and wasn’t taking too much money,” said Tessie Aral, vice-president of Miami-based ABC Charters Inc., which flies four days a week to Havana and twice a week to Holguín.
Other charter operators speaking at the Cancún meeting said their passengers faced similar scrutiny.
Their complaints focused on U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Treasury Depart-ment officials at Miami International Airport, where all but two of 30 weekly flights to Cuba depart (the other two leave from New York’s JFK and Los Angeles International Airport).
“If they want to stop illegal travel,” Aral told Reuters in an Oct. 18 interview, “they should go to Cancún, Nassau, or Toronto. No one who gets on my flight is illegal.”
Said Ferradaz, the Cuban tourism minister: “We are sorry so many people are being bothered. This should be denounced.”