Articles, Opinions, and Papers

August 2018
Only four Asia-Pacific nations—China, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines—rank in Cuba’s annual list of major visitor sources.
July 2018
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. tourism in Cuba bounced back in June from a months-long slump, bolstered by increased visits from cruise ships that have emerged as the most vibrant part of a sector hurt by deteriorating relations under President Donald Trump.
HAVANA/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Cuban-led commission investigating the crash of a Cubana passenger jet in May said on Tuesday that reports on what caused it were premature, after the Mexican plane-leasing company Damojh that owned the plane blamed the crash on human error.
Global Air, the Mexican company that leased a Boeing 737-200 involved in a March airplane crash in Cuba, says pilot error, rather than poor maintenance of the aircraft, caused the tragedy that killed 112 people.
Three U.S. airlines - American, JetBlue, and Southwest - are bidding to take over a route to Cuba that's being abandoned by Delta Air Lines Inc.
HAVANA (Reuters) - In the busy summer travel period in Cuba, a long line of people wait for hours in the sweltering heat outside the Havana office of state-owned airline Cubana, many of them eager to visit families in the provinces.
June 2018
The number of Cuba itineraries and Caribbean cruises with port calls at Havana (on the Atlantic coast), Cienfuegos and former capital Santiago de Cuba (both on the Caribbean coast) has soared in the last two years.
TAMPA — June 16 will mark a year since President Trump announced a tougher Cuba travel policy, but unlike in much of the nation, the changes don’t seem to have hurt local bookings to the island.
Two Venezuelan women were reportedly beaten by Cuban immigration officials at José Martí International Airport in Havana after being told they could not enter the island and had to leave their luggage behind.
Cuba's customs agency is threatening to confiscate packages sent from the United States with people who travel to the island to deliver items under the radar for shipping companies.
May 2018
It's not exactly business as usual in Cuba anymore.
Havana’s cruise-ship terminal will be able to handle three times as many vessels by 2024 as communist Cuba upgrades its tourist infrastructure to accommodate a surge in U.S. visitors.
In the months after Donald Trump was elected, cruise lines fretted that the new president would kill their nascent business to Cuba.
April 2018

The Man Who Saved Havana

April 30, 2018

On a sweltering morning in Old Havana, a courtly figure in a crisp gray guayabera shirt weaves through the Plaza de Armas, the city’s Spanish colonial heart, trying not to attract attention. Although none of the foreigners lolling beneath the banyan trees and royal palms recognize him, a ripple of excitement passes through the Cubans, who nudge each other, smile and stare. Perhaps only on this island obsessed with its operatic past could a historian become a celebrity on a par with a Clooney or DiCaprio. Eusebio Leal is the official historian of the city of Havana, a regal-sounding position that brings with it enormous influence and exposure—he starred for many years in his own TV show where he explored Old Havana’s streets—and he is as far from the cliché of the dusty, isolated academic as it is possible to get. In fact, Leal is credited with almost single-handedly bringing Old Havana from the brink of ruin to its current status as the most ravishing and vibrant architectural enclave in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuba had a 7 percent decline in overall tourism during the first three months of 2018, partly caused by a sharp drop in U.S. travel to the island, according to official data released Tuesday.
Only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba has long been a source of fascination for Americans. The country’s proximity combined with nearly six decades of travel restrictions created a romantic myth around the Pearl of Antilles for many living in the United States.
U.S. cruise ships still call on Cuban ports and U.S. airlines, such as American and Southwest, still list Havana and Camaguey as destinations.
At a time when Cuba faces a significant generational shift in power with Cuban leader Raúl Castro expected to retire from the presidency on April 19, the United States has few official eyes and ears on the island.
January 2018
HAVANA--When Tom Popper flew to Havana over the weekend, his flight from New York's JFK airport was only 27 percent full. For the president of InsightCuba, a Cuba tour operator, that was a sure sign that travel to the island is in trouble this winter.
On a sweltering early summer afternoon in Miami's Little Havana, President Donald Trump told a cheering Cuban-American crowd that he was rolling back some of Barack Obama's opening to Cuba in order to starve the island's military-run economy of U.S. tourism dollars and ratchet up pressure for regime change.
Dozens of U.S. groups that organize trips to Cuba say they are continuing to take Americans to the island despite the U.S. State Department urging people to reconsider their plans to visit.
The U.S. State Department has changed its travel alert system and now recommends American citizens “reconsider” visiting Cuba. It had previously issued a warning advising Americans not to travel to the island.
Late last year, the Trump administration issued long-awaited regulations that impact U.S. companies seeking to do business in Cuba. Among other things, the new regulations block business with certain Cuban entities owned or controlled by Cuban military, intelligence or security services that are specifically included on a new Cuba Restricted List published by the U.S. State Department, and restrict individual people to people travel to the island.
December 2017
HAVANA - Niuris Higueras is among the four Cuban women entrepreneurs who co-authored an opinion piece that The Miami Herald published this week.
Question: I recently booked a cruise for my wife and me that includes two ports of call in Cuba. Are we allowed to go to Cuba on this cruise, given the new regulations?
Royal Caribbean is putting a second ship on Cuba duty.
November 2017
HAVANA - Several CEOs of major cruise lines traveled to Havana this week to talk to the Cuban government about business.
It’s getting harder to find flights to Cuba with U.S. airlines dropping out of the market as demand softens, but Miami International Airport is holding its own as the main gateway for travel to the island.
Tour operator and travel agents just returned to their former status as the gateways for Americans seeking to visit Cuba.
On the homepage of Cuba Travel Services, a company that makes travel arrangements to Cuba, a banner proclaims: “YES, American travel to Cuba is still legal!”
SEATTLE — Alaska Airlines says it will stop flying to Havana after demand dropped and the Trump administration imposed new restrictions on travel to Cuba.
It has been almost three years since Barack Obama declared détente with Cuba, initiating, with Cuban President Raúl Castro, a normalization of relations between the two countries. But since his election last fall, Donald Trump has attempted to revert to an obsolete and aggressive Cold War policy by strengthening the economic embargo and promoting regime change. Trump’s ill-conceived measures and bombast cannot undo all of the advances in US-Cuba relations that have been made in the past few years. But they have added to the insecurity and daily struggles of Cubans in a time of economic difficulty and the resurgence of the right in the region. Those difficulties are compounded as the Cuban government addresses the lingering effects of Hurricane Irma.
Josefina Vidal, who was Cuba’s chief negotiator in the rapprochement with the United States, says the Trump administration’s new rules on travel and trade with the island confirm the “serious setback” in U.S-Cuba relations.
“It’s a good day,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, on Nov. 8, the day the U.S. State Department handed down the new restrictions on hotels in Cuba promised by President Trump last June.
In March 2016, Havana was electric in anticipation of President Obama’s historic visit. Cuba was awash with a spirit of hope that relations between our two countries were finally on a path toward normal. Now, the Trump administration has released new, restrictive travel rules for Cuba — and yet, with two years of progress under our belt, it is clear a full reversal is impossible.
Way to go, Miami Republicans. You’re really socking it to engagement in your dreams.
The night before the White House planned to announce new regulations restricting U.S. business and travel in Cuba, the biggest champions of President Donald Trump’s tighter policy — Miami’s Republican lawmakers in Congress — were in the dark.
The days of Americans legally staying at Ernest Hemingway’s Old Havana haunt, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, or making purchases at Havana’s only luxury shopping arcade, will be over under new regulations the Trump administration issued Wednesday as part of a crackdown on U.S. business and travel to Cuba.
HAVANA, Cuba - The Cuban government claims more tourists than ever are now visiting the island, including Americans.
October 2017
New travel regulations that Cuba announced over the weekend appear designed to make sure a steady flow of Cuban-American visitors continues.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Chris Allen's phone started buzzing as word broke that invisible attacks in Cuba had hit a U.S. government worker at Havana's Hotel Capri. Allen's friends and family had heard an eerily similar story from him before.
An ominous U.S. State Department warning against visiting Cuba and a U.S.-mandated cutback in the consular officers who issue visas at the Cuban Embassy in Washington could put the chill on some U.S. travel to the island but not as much as might be expected.
Massive discounts are available to travelers eyeing up a Cuban holiday this winter amid a souring relationship with the US and damage caused by Hurricane Irma.
Just when it seemed that Cuba was on track to become something of a routine destination for Americans, tensions and tactics reminiscent of the Cold War have once again complicated travel to the Communist island.
HAVANA--Stretches of the famed Malecón boulevard are still closed for repairs and seaside businesses show the scars of 30-foot waves that crashed through the seawall during Hurricane Irma.
September 2017
The U.S. State Department warned would-be travelers to Cuba Monday to “carefully consider the risks” in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and to avoid hard-hit northcentral Cuba “until further notice.”
As the business of regularly scheduled flights between the United Stated and Cuba undergoes growing pains, JetBlue Airways has set up shop on the island
August 2017
Marriott International is still pursuing plans to renovate and manage the historic Hotel Inglaterra on the fringe of Old Havana and is actively looking for other hotel projects throughout Cuba.
Cruise giant Carnival has added five more sailings to Cuba for 2018, citing strong demand for voyages to the island nation.
July 2017
A Coral Gables business consultant watched one day in June as Cuban authorities carried out chairs, tables, plates, sound systems and bottles of imported liquor from a popular private restaurant near the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Cuba’s historic cities, vibrant culture and sandy beaches were the star performers of the economy in the first half of the year, pulling in 23.2 percent more visitors than the first six months of 2016.
WASHINGTON--Jeff Flake sees an opening in Cuba.
HAVANA — All around Havana, local Cuban entrepreneurs refer to the day President Trump unveiled his new policy toward the country simply as “June 16.”
HAVANA — In the heart of Old Havana along the city’s historic Cathedral Square, a restored colonial mansion housing a popular tourist restaurant is packed with travelers sipping mojitos and nibbling on plantain chips.
NAPLES, Fla. — When Paul Vangelakos heard President Trump would be announcing a plan to tighten restrictions on travel to Cuba, he thought, “Oh, shoot. I need to get on this right now.”
In a reversal of the Obama administration’s historic effort to normalize US-Cuba relations, on June 16 President Trump announced his new, antagonistic policy—which includes restrictions on the abilities of US citizens to freely visit the island in the future. As Trump’s Treasury Department drafts the new regulations on how and where travelers can go in Cuba, The Nation asked four leading veterans of the travel-to-Cuba movement to comment on the new restrictions and their impact on the rights of US travelers and Cuban society at large.
Norwegian Cruise Line will expand its lineup of Cuba cruises in 2018 with new sailings out of Port Canaveral, Fla.
Cuban authorities have made a move to reignite citizens' sex lives by reintroducing a series of state-run pay-per-hour motels which they hope will "diversify the options for love", the country's official trade union weekly Trabajadores announced on Monday.
June 2017
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The Carnival Paradise makes its inaugural 4-day trip to Cuba out of Port Tampa Bay Thursday morning.
(Reuters) - Southwest Airlines Co said it would reduce the number of flights to Cuba, joining other U.S. airlines, as President Donald Trump's Cuba policy continues to restrict Americans traveling to the country.
HAVANA - For U.S.-based airlines, the coming months will be a wait-and-see game after President Donald Trump announced a new policy toward Cuba that some argue might hinder American travel to the island nation.
Less than a year after passenger flights restarted between the United States and Cuba, the future of Cuban travel is once again up in the air.
Towering cranes dot the Havana skyline as communist-run Cuba races to build luxury hotels, amid indignation among some residents and concern that U.S. President Donald Trump might reverse a detente that fueled the tourist boom.
Cruise lines and airlines stand to lose $3.5 billion and more than 10,000 jobs over the course of President Donald Trump’s four-year term if the administration fully rolls back all of the United States’ Cuba regulations, according to a report by nonprofit Engage Cuba.
May 2017
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators reintroduced legislation on Thursday to repeal all restrictions on travel to Cuba, this time attracting far more co-sponsors in a sign of growing support for U.S.-Cuban detente even as its future looks uncertain.
Less than three years after former U.S. President Barack Obama and former Cuban president Raul Castro announced a mutual agreement to thaw relations between the former adversarial countries, companies are asking President Donald Trump not to reverse the progress made.
HAVANA--Men sit on the steps and play a hand of cards, women chat outside barred windows, stray dogs missing tufts of fur trot by.
Expedia said on Tuesday it had started offering online booking for hotels in Communist-run Cuba, hoping to capitalize on a boom in tourism to the Caribbean island.
With demand to see Cuba still hot, Royal Caribbean International is extending its commitment to sail to the island through 2019.
American visitors to Cuba could increase by seven times by 2025, according to a new report – putting the Caribbean island’s infrastructure under enormous strain and sparking fears for the future of the country as US investors move in.
In the heart of the capital of a nation founded on ideals of social equality, the business arm of the Cuban military has transformed a century-old shopping arcade into a temple to conspicuous capitalism.
You might think other Caribbean tourism destinations would be ready to flip their sandals as Cuba's tourism numbers continue to climb.
TAMPA - Royal Caribbean’s inaugural Tampa to Cuba Cruise set sail at 4:00 p.m. Sunday from Port Tampa Bay.
April 2017
Only weeks after two small U.S. airlines announced plans to cut back service to Cuba, four major carriers have filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation to take over the routes to the island nation.
JetBlue Airways seems pretty eager to fly from Boston to Cuba.
The number of U.S. airlines flying to Cuba keeps thinning out.
Cubans who rent homes to tourists saw the heavens open when Airbnb, an American company that connects guests with hosts renting their homes, offered them the opportunity to use its digital platform.
Norwegian Cruise Line on Tuesday announced that it will expand its Cuba cruising offerings in 2018 with 33 sailings. Most of the trips will have overnight calls in Havana.
Although the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review has not been completed, a U.S.-based broadcast and video facilities company has received a license to operate on the island and to contract with a Cuban state enterprise.
TOURISTS whizz along the Malecón, Havana’s grand seaside boulevard, in bright-red open-topped 1950s cars. Their selfie sticks wobble as they try to film themselves. They move fast, for there are no traffic jams. Cars are costly in Cuba ($50,000 for a low-range Chinese import) and most people are poor (a typical state employee makes $25 a month). So hardly anyone can afford wheels, except the tourists who hire them. And there are far fewer tourists than there ought to be.
March 2017
WASHINGTON — A rare poll of Cuban public opinion has found that most of the island’s citizens approve of normal relations with the United States and large majorities want more tourists to visit and the expansion of private business ownership.
Two U.S. airlines are pulling out of Cuba, ending service to the nation only about six months after regular passenger flights resumed for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Havana was exploding in yanqui frenzy. Seven hundred Americans streamed across its streets one steamy May 2016 morning on an expedition of rediscovery. They were the first to arrive via sea since John F. Kennedy was president.
February 2017
American travelers checking into Cuban hotels and dining at Havana’s more upscale private restaurants since the U.S. rapprochement with Cuba have experienced more than a bit of sticker shock.
America, did you miss the travel industry's memo declaring Cuba the hottest new destination?
At this time last year, U.S. airlines were developing ambitious growth plans for Cuba after it became legal to offer scheduled service to the Caribbean island nation for the first time in more than half a century. As the top airlines in South Florida, American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and JetBlue Airways(NASDAQ:JBLU) had the most ambitious plans for flying to Cuba.
Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels said Tuesday that it plans to open a five-star hotel this spring in the Old Havana section of the Cuban capital, giving Havana a luxury offering that has been missing from its hotel mix.
Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels said Tuesday that it plans to open a five-star hotel this spring in the Old Havana section of the Cuban capital, giving Havana a luxury offering that has been missing from its hotel mix.
Norwegian Cruise Line will offer weekly cruises to Cuba through at least December.
Last week, the newly inaugurated Trump administration warned it was in the middle of a "full review" of U.S. policy toward Cuba—prompting new questions about how committed President Donald Trump will be to the political and cultural thaw began under his predecessor.
January 2017
U.S. airlines began lobbying Washington on Cuba last year as they fought to win commercial flight routes to the island nation for the first time in 50 years.
The wait in the line to exchange money at the Havana airport can stretch on for hours, reservations are a must at popular private Cuban restaurants and tangerine and hot-pink-colored vintage cars ferrying visitors crowd the streets around the most frequented tourist destinations.
December 2016
SANTIAGO DE CUBA--Cuban rum and cigars seem to have become the souvenir of choice for U.S. visitors to the island.

Cuba, in Clothes

December 13, 2016

Deep in Bauta, a sleepy Cuban town 17 miles southwest of Havana, past rows of billboards painted with portraits of national heroes and narrow streets lined with colorful Spanish colonial houses, sits an abandoned factory on a plot of lush, overgrown farmland.
HAVANA — For Lisset Felipe, privation is a standard facet of Cuban life, a struggle shared by nearly all, whether they’re enduring blackouts or hunting for toilet paper.
Havana Harbor is getting crowded for 2017.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. won Cuban government approval to begin sailing to the island, one of the most hotly anticipated new travel destinations for the industry.
As US airlines ramp up the number of daily flights to Cuba and consumer demand to visit the once off-limits island balloons, some tourists and travel industry insiders fear that the next administration in the White House could slam the door on the newly opened Cuban travel market.
After over a decade of tense relations between the United States and Cuba, recent changes have allowed for somewhat of a thawing – and an increase in travel between the nations, including the first commercial flights since the late Fidel Castro took over.
November 2016
In another milestone in improving air service between the United States and Cuba, an American Airlines 737 took off Monday morning on the first regularly scheduled flight between Miami and the Cuban capital in more than half a century.
Delta Air Lines, which plans to resume regularly scheduled flights to Cuba on Dec. 1, has opened an office in Havana and is already selling tickets.
JetBlue Airways on Thursday will launch its second nonstop regular route between Fort Lauderdale and Cuba.
October 2016
For sale: www.cuba.com.
Travelers will soon be able to book accommodations to Cuba through TripAdvisor, one of the world’s largest travel websites. It’s the latest development in an American travel industry that is slowly expanding tourism to the Communist nation.
A restaurant franchisor or a U.S. distributor of tires could negotiate a future contract in Cuba. A U.S. engineering or architecture firm could work on a public transportation project or new Cuban hospital. An American traveler to Cuba can load up on premium cigars and bottles of high-end Santiago or Havana Club rum.
When Cuba opened up to U.S. airlines earlier this year, nearly all rushed in with requests to add new service to the island. Against that enthusiasm, however, some industry executives openly wondered whether demand would live up to the hype.
Alaska Airlines plans to start flying from Los Angeles International Airport to Cuba in January despite an attempt by rival JetBlue Airways to hijack the route away from the Seattle-based carrier and leave Southern California travelers out in the cold.
American Airlines has been flying to five Cuban cities for just over a month but so far its regularly scheduled flights to the island are often less than half full.
Southwest Airlines announced Thursday it would begin scheduled flights to Cuba on Nov. 13, following competitors to serve the Caribbean island after a 50 year hiatus from the U.S.
Havana, Cuba - Sparks fly and drills roar, but the restoration of the Manzana de Gomez, an ornate and imposing building to the east of Central Park in Old Havana, is well behind schedule.
Cuba will allow U.S. air marshals on regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries, island authorities announced Friday.
September 2016
A company controlled by Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, secretly conducted business in Communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s presidency despite strict American trade bans that made such undertakings illegal, according to interviews with former Trump executives, internal company records and court filings.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has sent a letter to the White House demanding answers about why scheduled airline service to Cuba began without a security agreement in place that would have put federal air marshals aboard select flights.
CIENFUEGOS, CUBA--Residents of this small city on Cuba’s southern coast awaken every other Thursday to the Fathom Line’s MV Adonia looming in the bay, but the 704-passenger cruise ship’s visit is fleeting.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida excoriated the TSA and the Obama administration on the Senate floor Wednesday, just hours after a government official admitted that there are no air marshals on non-charter flights between the U.S. and Cuba.
U.S. airlines are now flying to Cuba after a half-century ban on travel there, but you wouldn’t know it from browsing any of the major travel-booking websites.
A House panel advanced legislation on Tuesday that would halt commercial flights to Cuba until a thorough security review is conducted at the country’s 10 airports, fueling an ongoing debate about whether the U.S. should have resumed air service with the island nation.
Two leading critics of President Barack Obama's moves toward normal relations with Cuba introduced legislation on Wednesday seeking to temporarily halt commercial flights between the United States and the island because of security concerns.
Just a short hop from Florida, flying to Cuba should be easy. But restarting scheduled airline service after 55 years has been anything but a milk run for U.S. airlines.
The surge in visitors to Cuba, brought on by the December 2014 detente between the island and the U.S., caught the Caribbean nation unawares.
Commercial flights to Cuba resumed for the first time in 50 years this week, but don’t expect a flood of legislative changes to follow.
SANTA CLARA, Cuba -- Many more U.S. passenger jets will soon start flying to Cuba after Wednesday’s historic first commercial flight to the island in half of a century.
August 2016
SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The flight from Fort Lauderdale to this city in central Cuba on Wednesday morning took only 51 minutes, but it represented a major step in ending decades of isolation between communist Cuba and the United States.
An expected explosion in U.S. tourism to Cuba will likely take years to materialize even after U.S. airlines resume commercial flights to the Caribbean island this week for the first time since 1961, industry officials said.
U.S. companies lobbying Congress to normalize relations with Cuba say the restoration of daily, scheduled flights Aug. 31 could bring a swift end to the travel ban and eventually another look at lifting the trade embargo, according to a top official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
When Juan Santamarina’s two uncles from Cuba recently visited the U.S. for the first time, the travel experience was exceptionally . . . unexceptional.
VIÑALES--The tables are ready, the glasses shine on the tablecloths and the bar displays a wide variety of drinks. However, the restaurant is closed.
HAVANA — Ramses Fernandez’s most cherished possession is barely larger than a refrigerator, with the legroom of an economy airplane seat and a little more horsepower than a riding lawnmower.
A sticking point in resumption of commercial airline service to Cuba has been resolved: U.S. air marshals will travel on certain flights to Cuba.
HAVANA — More than 2 million tourists have visited Cuba this year, state media said Wednesday, putting the country on track for a record number of visitors bringing badly needed cash to an economy facing a sharp reduction in subsidized oil from its chief ally, Venezuela.
Cuba's approval for a French company to import Indian workers to build a Havana hotel has been met with disbelief, anger and complaints about a policy that usually requires foreign companies to hire local workers through state labor agencies
July 2016
Ready. Set. Don’t go.
Low-cost carrier JetBlue announced Thursday it will start flying to Cuba commercially on Aug. 31 — before competitors American Airlines and Silver Airways, which have also announced their departure dates.
Cuba on Thursday objected to attempts by a small group of U.S. lawmakers to prevent scheduled flights between the two countries from going ahead on security grounds, underscoring its longstanding cooperation with U.S. authorities on the issue.
MIAMI (WSVN) - As Cuba prepares for a spike in tourism, a group of the island nation’s scientists and government officials got a firsthand look at how the United States has been able to restore its sensitive underwater ecosystem.
Republican opposition to lifting the Cuban travel embargo is beginning to erode on Capitol Hill.
HAVANA--Cuban authorities warned Friday that they will pull the licenses of private taxi drivers who raise fares, amid recently announced energy restrictions that have many islanders bracing for difficult months ahead.
WASHINGTON – The head of the Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday that scheduled airline flights from Cuba wouldn’t be allowed in the U.S. until security is as tight as any other foreign airport sending flights to this country.
HAVANA, Cuba—Though the U.S. embargo still officially bars them from hitting Cuba’s beaches as tourists, Americans are nevertheless shaking up the country’s tourism industry and communist economy as they flock to the island.
WASHINGTON – A trio of House lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday to block flights theTransportation Department has approved between Cuba and the U.S. because of security concerns that the direct flights will ease the flow of bombs and terrorists to the U.S.
ABOARD THE SEVEN SEAS EXPLORER -- Oceania Cruises could launch its first Cuba voyages within months, the CEO of the line's parent company suggested Sunday.
Scheduled commercial airline service to Havana from 10 U.S. cities — including Los Angeles — won tentative government approval Thursday, advancing President Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba.
Major airlines are competing for a limited number of flights to Cuba, with the Obama administration considering whether to allow a direct route to the island from Washington, D.C.
HAVANA — Cubans face tough times in the energy sector in the coming months, official media warned Tuesday amid orders from authorities to implement power-saving measures and some state-run entities reducing hours of operation.
HAVANA — Cubans face tough times in the energy sector in the coming months, official media warned Tuesday amid orders from authorities to implement power-saving measures and some state-run entities reducing hours of operation.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts this year became the first U.S. hotelier to ink a deal in Cuba in nearly six decades. Marriott International quickly announced plans to do the same, and a number of big-name competitors have since expressed interest in expanding to the island nation.
June 2016
To help its new Cuba business take off, American Airlines plans to work with an outside company to assist passengers with getting visas for travel to the island, and it will set up a special Cuba reservations desk soon.
Grand Circle Cruise Line today announced that it will begin operating Cuba's Cultural Treasures: A Coastal Voyage, an 11-night, 89-passenger cruise tour from Miami to Cuba in January 2017.
A large "Four Points by Sheraton" sign has gone up outside the Havana hotel that this week becomes the first in Cuba to operate under a U.S. brand since the 1959 revolution.
American Airlines is now taking reservations and selling regularly scheduled flights between Miami International Airport and five Cuban cities to start in September for less than $300 round-trip, including taxes.
For more than half a century, it's been forbidden to and mostly forgotten by American travelers. Until now.
A Senate panel easily approved a spending bill amendment on Thursday that would lift a travel ban preventing American tourists from flying to Cuba.
More than half a century after the U.S. banned commercial airline flights to Cuba, scheduled service between the two countries is on the verge of resuming. Last Friday, the U.S. government awarded the first set of U.S.-Cuba route authorities.
A small Florida bank will issue the first U.S. credit card intended for use in Cuba and make it easier for Americans to travel and work on an island largely cut off from the U.S. financial system, the bank announced Tuesday.
News keeps trickling in about Cuba, the travel destination so close to the United States that seems to be more fascinating to travelers than destinations halfway around the world. Since my trip to Cuba last year I’ve kept up with reporting travel info about that island nation 90 miles from Florida. Read my comprehensive article for more details and my gallery for photos of Cuba.
Carnival's new Fathom brand cruises to Cuba and the Dominican Republic, launched in May, appear to be experiencing growing pains.
A new cruise line based in Miami hopes to offer trips from Florida to Cuba.
There is no better way to promote openness in Cuba than by allowing everyday Americans to travel freely to the Island and serve as on-the-ground ambassadors of our democratic values.
April 2016
In the wake of a reversal in a Cuban policy that prevented those born in Cuba from taking cruises to the island, a class-action lawsuit against Carnival Cruises and its Fathom line was pulled Thursday.
Cuba is easing a long-standing ban on the Cuban-born returning to the island by sea, clearing the way for Carnival to launch a Miami-to-Havana route that was the subject of a national controversy when the company declined to sell tickets to Cuban-born Americans.
In the new era of rapprochement, the U.S. government has lifted almost every restriction for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba — and that’s a good thing. We are free people.
Cuba plans to create some 108,000 new tourist lodgings as part of the National Plan for Economic and Social Development from now to the year 2030, which is being debated Monday by delegates at the 7th Congress of the ruling Communist Party.
Those most interested in visiting Cuba live in places you might not expect. A survey of Google searches between March 1, 2015 and Feb. 29, 2016 reveals that travelers from New England surpass those from Florida in Google searches about Cuba travel.
HAVANA (Reuters) - The ubiquitous fridges that dispense beer in Cuba's bars, cafes and gas stations are running out of the island's favorite Cristal and Bucanero brands in recent weeks, as a surge in American tourists and new private watering holes strain the main brewery.
Imagine a cruise line that won’t take African-Americans on sailings to Africa. Or won’t take bookings from American Jews to Israel. One class of U.S. citizen banned while others get access. No company in contemporary America would ever survive such blunt discriminatory business practices.
HAVANA, Cuba, Monday April 4, 2016 – Business is booming in the hospitality sector in Cuba, with March ending with an increase of 14 percent in tourist arrivals.
Following President Barack Obama's watershed visit to Cuba last month, the Caribbean island is moving one step closer to harmony with its northern neighbour. An application has been submitted for what will become the world's second-largest theme park, on the island's north coast, around an hour's drive east of popular holiday resort Varadero.
March 2016
HAVANA — In Viñales, a lush valley about 100 miles from Havana, cabdrivers are charging stranded foreigners $10 to sleep in the back of their taxis.
Cruising to Cuba from the United States is now a reality. Carnival Corporation announced Monday that it will offer cruises to Cubastarting May 1, after Cuba granted approval for the company to begin travel there; it’s the first time in more than 50 years that a cruise ship has permission to sail from the United States to Cuba.
(Reuters) - U.S. airlines hoping to get a few of the limited number of flights to Cuba filed regulatory papers on Monday in response to rivals' applications laying out their best arguments for consumer travel to the Caribbean island.
Fidel Castro probably never imagined a day when Americans would book flights to Cuba on their smartphones.
A U.S. senator is urging the Obama administration to ease restrictions on investment in Cuba so American hotels can operate in the island nation.
HAVANA (Reuters) - Americans traveling to Cuba later this month are being moved out of Havana hotels to make room for President Barack Obama's entourage and being sent tantalizingly close to a place U.S. law effectively forbids them from visiting: the beach.
The first round of competition for commercial routes between the United States and Cuba opened Wednesday with American Airlines making it clear it wants its Miami hub to play a major role in the future of civil aviation between the two countries.
That didn't take long. Only a month after launching a new brand called fathom™ (that’s not a typo, it’s spelled with a small f). Carnival Corporation announced that the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce granted approval for the company to begin travel to Cuba.
February 2016
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's tourism boom continues at a record pace but is expected to cool off during 2016 with the government forecasting nearly 6 percent growth this year after a 17 percent increase in 2015.
NEEDHAM, Mass., Feb. 23, 2016 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- TripAdvisor® (TRIP), the travel and booking site, today announced the five most popular destinations and great cultural attractions to see in Cuba, as well as its top 10 hotels to help U.S. travelers make the most of their cultural trips to the country.
Feb. 16--Several airlines that offer flights in Central Florida have expressed broad interest in nabbing one of 20 spots for commercial air service between the United States and Havana, Cuba.
On Tuesday morning, the US and Cuba are expected to sign a civil aviation agreement in Havana, marking the first time since the Cuba embargo was put in place half a century ago that Americans will be able to fly to the island on commercial airlines.
Interest in Cuba-bound ferries has been high enough at PortMiami that officials are looking for ways to create temporary terminals to accommodate operators wanting to launch overnight runs to Havana every day.
January 2016
Since President Obama expanded authorized travel to Cuba a little over a year ago, U.S. travel to the island has increased by over 77 percent. Many of the approved travel providers that operate people-to-people trips have designed a variety of tours that highlight the country's rich culture, history and people.
Cuba's tourism industry is under unprecedented strain and struggling to meet demand with record numbers of visitors arriving a year after detente with the United States renewed interest in the Caribbean island.
SEATTLE (AP) - A German shipping and ferry company has acquired Seattle-based Clipper, which runs high-speed ferry services between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia.
American Airlines’ Howard Kass is hopeful that the airline will be flying regularly scheduled service between the United States and Cuba within the first half of this year and says Miami will play a big role in resumption of commercial flights to the island.
At least three U.S.-headquartered cruise lines have Cuba in their sights and have been advertising itineraries that leave from PortMiami this winter and spring.
A day after talk of a possible ferry service to Cuba from PortMiami roiled local politics, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez held a press conference and played down the idea of his administration pursuing a commercial link with the island nation.

36 Hours in Havana

January 7, 2016

Havana is no longer frozen in time, at least not completely. With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality.
The largely undeveloped plot of land at PortMiami where David Beckham once wanted a soccer stadium is poised to test just how much the politics of Cuba have changed in Miami. County officials want to transform the waterfront property into a bustling terminal for ferries running between Miami and Cuba.
Jan. 4 — The Cuban government is considering different ways to bypass the potential expropriation of its aircraft, which the U.S. could impound on American soil as payment for billions of dollars in unpaid U.S. terrorism judgments against Cuba, a State Department official told Bloomberg BNA.
December 2015
WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States and Cuba are close to an agreement on restoring regularly scheduled, commercial flights between the countries, a senior American diplomat said Tuesday, as talks on the matter were ongoing.
Dec 14 MSC Cruises will this week become the first major liner to start operations in Cuba, part of its efforts to grow a global presence, the Swiss group's chief executive said.
November 2015
Cuba is expected to see a record high of foreign visitors this year as three million people have already visited the island nation so far, according to official figures.
Now that American Airlines has finished its massive merger with US Airways, it is officially the largest airline in the world. It flies to 54 countries. And it hopes to add one more next year: Cuba.
October 2015
Tour operators around the globe are reporting such high demand for travel to Cuba that hotel rooms in Havana are selling out months in advance, with some agencies unable to offer availability until April 2016.
September 2015
If you are aching for a vacation of sunbathing and banana daiquiris in Cuba, you may not have to wait too much longer.
HAVANA, Sept. 2 (Xinhua) -- The Cuban tourism industry is continuing to grow, making local authorities to believe that 2015 could be the strongest year in a decade for tourism on the island.
When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Havana this month to oversee the raising of the American flag over the U.S. embassy, it was the culmination of negotiations that guaranteed American diplomats flexibility and freedom to move around the island and meet with the Cuban people.
Now that Cuba has restored diplomatic ties with the US, teaching English in schools will be a priority, the communist partynewspaper Granma reported on Monday.
August 2015
Carnival CCL +2.13% newest cruise line is sailing in a new direction; Fathom’s destination is social impact. Initially sailing with one vessel, the Adonia, Fathom passengers will visit the Dominican Republic and Cuba to work alongside locals as volunteers on water and other projects.
Aug 18 (Reuters) - There is no timeline for reestablishing U.S. commercial air travel to Cuba, the State Department said on Tuesday following media reports that Washington was working to begin scheduled flights between the two countries as soon as December.
White House aims to loosen travel restrictions for individual U.S. travelers despite congressional ban
SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) - This 500-year-old city smells of fresh paint and varnish. Residents stroll along a recently completed harbor promenade under gleaming new streetlights, enjoying sea breezes while relaxing on newly installed metal benches.
HAVANA — You never know who you'll run into in this Caribbean capital. While on a recent trip to Cuba, I visited El Floridita, the legendary Havana bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway and known as the "cradle of the daiquiri." I've made it a ritual each time I visit Havana to duck into El Floridita, partly to escape the suffocating tropical heat but mostly to enjoy some of the best-crafted daiquiris anywhere.
July 2015
WASHINGTON (AP) — A GOP-controlled Senate panel has voted to lift a decades-long ban on travel to Cuba, giving a boost to President Barack Obama's moves to ease travel restrictions and open up relations with the Castro-governed nation.
Carnival is to become the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the Sixties. The giant firm, which owns 10 lines, including Costa, Cunard, Holland America, P&O and Princess, and has a combined fleet of more than 100 ships, received permission this week to commence trips in May.
When Omar Fonseca got the call that Airbnb wanted to meet with him in Havana this winter, he could hardly believe it."Are you sure? Airbnb?" he excitedly asked the client who had called to tell him the news.
July 08--When Elisabeth Rodriguez and her mom landed in Cuba on Wednesday, was the first time in a year seeing most of her extended family.
Carnival Corp., angling to become the first U.S. cruise operator to call on Cuba in 50 years, said the Treasury and Commerce departments approved its request to begin sailing there.
June 2015
Online home-rental service Airbnb says it is exploring a significant expansion of its operations in Cuba two months after it became the first major U.S. business to enter the island in decades.

Lift the Cuba Travel Ban

June 20, 2015

Granted, Khartoum, Tehran, Damascus and Pyongyang are not terribly popular tourist destinations. But they are places Americans can visit without running afoul of federal law. Yet, traveling to Cuba for tourism continues to be banned. Getting there for approved purposes remains needlessly difficult and expensive.
The U.S. travel industry has spent more than a half-century gazing over a narrow stretch of sea at Cuba, the once and future vacation paradise located just a 45-minute jaunt from one of America's busiest airports.
May 2015
WASHINGTON — Florida banks, traders and travelers will benefit from Cuba's removal from the U.S. list of "state sponsors of terrorism," which officially takes effect on Friday, analysts said this week.
JetBlue revealed ambitious plans for its service to Cuba Tuesday, on the heels of announcing that it will begin weekly flights from New York to Havana in July. The air carrier joins other American businesses that have staked a preemptive claim in the long-isolated island nation.
April 2015
Casas particulares — traveler lodgings in private homes — are a long-standing and legal tradition in Cuba.
Cuba is far from seeing a McDonald's or Starbucks open any time soon, but the diplomatic thaw with the United States is bringing more American visitors to the sweltering island.
March 2015
NEW YORK (AP) — The first direct charter flights between New York City and Cuba are now taking off.
Cruise lines are looking to send their ships to Cuba as soon as general tourism is allowed, executives said Tuesday at the industry's biggest annual convention in Miami Beach.
(Bloomberg) -- Cuba, so tempting with its rum drinks and beaches, so long off-limits for Americans, is about to become a little more accessible to New York area travelers.
Dr. José Luis Perelló Cabrera of the University of Havana's Faculty of Tourism analyzes the effects of the process of normalization of bilateral relations on U.S. travel to Cuba.
February 2015
NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - February 12, 2015) - JetBlue Airways (JBLU), the largest airline to the Caribbean, today announced an agreement with its partner, ABC Charters, to add a new charter flight to Cuba beginning this summer.

End the Cuban travel ban

February 6, 2015

There's a term to describe those who persist in doing the same thing year after year while vainly expecting a different result. It's not flattering but it's certainly apt for those who oppose any change in our 50-year-old policy of isolating Cuba in hopes of bringing change.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Feb. 4, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- For the first time since 1961, the U.S. Government has significantly eased travel restrictions to Cuba. While general tourism is still banned, travel insurance providers are already offering coverage to those authorized to visit the destination.
The people who have spent decades arranging flights between the United States and Cuba compare the history of their industry to a roller coaster. The half-dozen or so charter companies are subject to the politics of two countries, plus opposition that is at times explosive—literally.
January 2015
Congress, about to take up free travel to Cuba as a bipartisan bill introduced Thursday makes the rounds, might want to consider the laughable scenarios resulting from current U.S. policy.
On Thursday, the White House announced details about new regulations that will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. They come after President Obama said he would begin thawing relations with the Communist country last month. "We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston," a United spokesperson said Thursday. Under the relaxed rules, travel agents and airlines can book tickets for U.S. citizens to Cuba without a special license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control...
September 2014
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's state-run tourism industry is increasingly doing business with the country's new class of private entrepreneurs, trying to improve quality of food and lodging while maintaining a grip on the sector's biggest sources of foreign exchange.
June 2014
Cuba welcomed 1.28 million tourists in the first four months of this year, a figure that exceeded by 60,804 the number of visitors during the same period in 2013, the National Statistics and Information Office, or ONEI, said Monday.
April 2014
MIAMI (AP) — The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, even as the more than five-decade long embargo remains firmly in place, according to study released Monday.
Following is a summary of Cuba’s February tourist arrivals from the National Statistics Office in Havana.
February 2014
HAVANA — When President Barack Obama reinstated “people-to-people” travel to Cuba in 2011, the idea was that visiting Americans would act as cultural ambassadors for a U.S. constantly demonized in the island’s official media.
HAVANA — When President Barack Obama reinstated “people-to-people” travel to Cuba in 2011, the idea was that visiting Americans would act as cultural ambassadors for a U.S. constantly demonized in the island’s official media.
January 2014
A summary of Cuba’s December tourist arrivals from the National Statistics Office in Havana.
Last February, Amalia Reigosa Blanco experienced for the first time the rush of an airplane taking off. She browsed the clothing shops of Italy's fashion capital, and strolled cobblestone streets echoing with an unfamiliar tongue. She learned what snow feels like.
Miami has long been travel central when it comes to trips to Cuba. In December — the peak of holiday travel to the island — 394 charter flights departed from Miami International Airport.
December 2013
KEY WEST, Fla. - The first commercial passenger flight from Key West to Cuba in more than 50 years landed Monday in Havana, capping several years of efforts to reunite the two islands, though regular air service still appeared a distant prospect.
November 2013
October 2013
For the first time since 1962, regularly scheduled air travel between Key West and Havana is returning. Beginning Nov. 15, a Miami-based travel company says it will offer chartered flights from Key West International Airport to José Martí International Airport in Cuba for small groups of qualifying travelers.
(Reuters) - Americans are visiting Cuba in record numbers despite strict travel restrictions, joining the hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who travel home each year, according to Cuban government figures published on Friday.

New Year's in Havana?

October 13, 2013

September 2013
MIAMI — At 67, Cuban taxi driver Benito Perez had never been on a plane. For years, friends in Miami had invited him to visit, but he couldn’t afford to pay for the flight and didn’t want to burden his friends. The process of getting an exit permit from Cuban authorities and permission from the U.S. government also seemed daunting.
Cuba received just under 1.6 million tourists in the first six months of 2013, a 2 percent decrease compared to the same period in 2012, according to data from Cuba’s official government statistics office.
August 2013
HAVANA (Reuters) - After several frenetic days of traveling, listening to lectures, walking through historic Havana and meeting Cubans, Terry McAbee did not hesitate when asked what the trip with her fellow West Virginia school teachers was missing.
July 2013
TAMPA - Island Travel & Tours operator Bill Hauf said that in November his company will add another weekly flight to Cuba from Tampa International Airport. That’s significant because air travel to Cuba is at its strongest during the summer months, when school is out and Cuban-Americans can take their kids with them to visit relatives.
NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S.-based organization on Friday canceled people-to-people trips to Cuba that would have transported U.S. citizens there by ship.
Most online guest reviews of beach resorts mention the quality of the sand, the water, the food and the towels and linens. And the Club Marea del Portillo and adjoining Club Farallón on Cuba’s southeastern coast are no different.
June 2013
Cuba’s tourism arrivals shrank by nearly 5 percent in April compared to the same month last year, largely because of significant drops in visitors from the United States and southern Europe, according to official reports.
WASHINGTON — Jay-Z and Beyoncé's controversial trip to Cuba four weeks ago has stoked public interest in traveling to the forbidden island, prompting more Americans to seek similar "people-to-people" culture tours.
April 2013
Although the current administration’s slight loosening of the restrictions is a small step in the right direction, it makes no sense to continue this nearly half-century old failed policy. Freedom to travel is a fundamental right. Restricting this fundamental right in the name of human rights is foolish and hypocritical.
Every once in a while something happens to remind us just how far U.S.-Cuba relations have deviated from what they should be. Last week, superstars Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z strolled through Havana, engulfed in a sea of people.
February 2013
Not enough passengers to fill airplanes, but March is better.
January 2013
Fifty-one new cholera cases reported in Cuba’s capital are drawing an increasing concern about the spread of the illness throughout the country. Cuba's Public Health Ministry acknowledged the situation in Havana on Tuesday as disappointment rises in the diplomatic community over the government's lack of transparency.
Fort Lauderdale may soon offer scheduled charter flight service to Cuba again.

Just weeks after one charter operator ceased service, another is looking to take its place - possibly as soon as next month, airport officials confirmed on Friday.
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - There will be fewer flights to Cuba departing from Tampa International Airport.

ABC Charters is ending its flights from Tampa to Holguin, a city in eastern Cuba, starting Feb.
December 2012
Rice, beans, pork — and lots of it. That's a typical restaurant meal in Cuba, widely regarded by travelers as a culinary wasteland where the variety and quality of raw ingredients leave much to be desired.
MIAMI -- The door for travel to Cuba cracked open during President Barack Obama's first term. Cuban-Americans can now visit family on the island as often as they like. Americans can travel legally as part of an academic or religious trip.
Havana (CNN) - Louis and Bonnie Waterer are spending their retirement filling up their passports one stamp at a time.

"There are a bunch of people who are trying to visit 100 countries before they die," Louis explained.
November 2012
The Castro regime is still in charge, but for some travel companies, the 2012 election in the U.S. has ushered in the closest thing to a golden era of Cuba travel possible under the current trade embargo.
The Cuban government is suspending the operating permits for two South Florida-based companies that book charter flights to the communist island.

The Cuban government did not explain its decision to suspend the licenses for Airline Brokers and C&T Charters starting Tuesday, but The Miami Herald is
MIAMI - The Cuban government is suspending the operating permits for two South Florida-based companies that book charter flights to the communist island.
Two of the largest operators of charter flights to Cuba had their permits suspended by the Cuban government. No reason was given.
September 2012

Russian tourists invade Cuba

September 7, 2012

Havana, Cuba (CNN) - Cuba is experiencing a Russian invasion - but of a purely cultural kind.

According to the Cuban government, tourism from Russia has more than doubled in the last two years, an influx tour guides say has as much to do with Russian nostalgia for Cuba as it has to do with instabil
August 2012
In January 2011, President Obama issued a directive encouraging certain types of visits to Cuba and prompting tour companies to hurriedly submit applications for the new licenses required to operate these "people-to-people" educational trips.
HAVANA — Cuban authorities report that tourism revenues rose 12.8 percent in 2011, returning to levels from three years earlier as the key sector recovers from losses due to the global financial crisis.
Research and Markets: Travel and Tourism in Cuba: Key Trends and Opportunities to 2016 - Total Number of Domestic and Outbound Trips Undertaken By Cubans Increased From 5.
September 2011
Advertisement Years of isolation from the United States have left Cuba on the brink of economic ruin. Now President Raul Castro is bringing in some huge changes which allow Cubans to work for themselves in almost 200 approved activities, hire employees and rent out rooms and cars..
Island Travel & Tours plans to begin charter service from Tampa to Cuba in November and will begin a flight that connects the Washington, D.C., area to Havana in January, its owner said Tuesday.
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Commercial flights from Tampa to Cuba are back for the first time since 1962, when relations between the two countries broke off during the Cold War.
TAMPA - The inaugural charter flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana next week are sold out, airport officials said today, but reservations are available for flights later in the month.
August 2011
Abercrombie & Kent canceled its Cuba program for U.S. travelers after reviewing a government advisory clarifying new regulations for Cuba travel.
HAVANA (AP) — Flights between Cuba and Puerto Rico have resumed nearly 50 years after service between the islands was severed due to bad blood between Washington and Havana.
HAVANA — The first group of Americans to tour Cuba under new, more liberal U.S. travel regulations have been greeted by hugs, handshakes and a welcoming Cuban government, according to a trip organizer.
Tampa teenager Melissa González wanted to visit her ailing grandfather in Cuba. But her travel agency told her that the Cuban government had turned down her request for an entry permit, without explaination.
As the walls between Cuba and the USA started to crumble, starting with the Obama administration loosening restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting home and sending money, a controversy has arisen.
July 2011
Tampa International Airport said Wednesday that the Cuban government had approved its plans to begin offering charters to the island. Weekly service is expected to begin in September.
Picture this: in a brief moment of reform, the veil of isolation is lifted over an autocratic island. Cubans are allowed to travel freely to visit relatives, breaking a half-century of lockdown to get a taste of the world outside. Realizing the risks that this whiff of exchange and travel will mean to their control, though, the leaders clamp down, returning their citizens to comfortable dark isolation.
Travel providers and other groups are scrambling to secure licenses and organize people-to-people exchanges in Cuba after a decision by the U.S. government to relax restrictions and allow a wider variety of Americans to visit the Caribbean island for the first time in 7 1/2 years.
MIAMI -- South Florida U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart is hoping to revive strict Bush-era limits on family travel to Cuba, and he may succeed.
The chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee is pressing the Obama administration to enforce U.S. laws limiting tourist trips toCuba, after discovering that a Louisiana travel agency is promoting trips to the communist-ruled island.
In the summer of 1989, U.S. yachtsmen sailed the Black Sea Regatta after the Soviet Odessa Sports Club had participated in the Liberty Cup Yacht Race around the Statue of Liberty. The exchange was one of hundreds of sports-related exchanges between the Cold War enemies that included hockey, tennis, baseball and diving before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
TAMPA -- Armando Ramirez has made a successful career for the last 25 years selling charter flights from Miami to Cuba.
We lived in a dark time in 1992 and this daughter of a train engineer with no train had decided to drop out of high school. I got up early and told my mother. Hands on my head, screaming through the house, the dog barking in shock. "I'm not going any more Mom, I'm not going," I concluded categorically and went back to bed. My only shoes, inherited from a friend when they already had huge holes in the soles, had fallen apart. I had learned to walk with them touching the floor in a way so that the rips didn't show, but I could do little to hide them when we had Military Training class. There I had to lie face down, crawling along the terrain, imagining that I was under enemy fire. Then the shells were falling all around me, not those of imperialism but rather of jokes, the cruel chants of those who had better shoes.

The Cuban Grapevine

July 13, 2011

Somehow I’ve ended up helping to cater a party in Havana, and a burly, jovial architect called Rafael is asking me whether I’ve heard of Radio Bemba.

Basically it’s the Cuban grapevine: “Bemba” is a slang word for big lips, and the expression has its origins in the way Fidel Castro communicated with his men in the 1950s when they were holed up in the Sierra Maestra building the revolution. Today, in a nation where the only official media are state-controlled, Radio Bemba has become shorthand for the word-of-mouth information network, which is by far the quickest (and often the most reliable) way to find out about anything from baseball chat to celebrity gossip to news of the latest defection to the United States.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), tapped by President Obama to head the Democratic National Committee, is a hard-liner on Cuba, which means the chairwoman of the organization intent on reelecting the president disagrees with Obama on a foreign policy issue that is electorally sensitive in a swing state.
On June 23, South Florida Congressman (and Appropriations Committee member) Mario Diaz-Balart successfully added an amendment to the 2012 Financial Services Appropriations Bill that would nullify recent steps by President Obama to ease travel restrictions and money transfers to Cuba. The move—which would disproportionately affect constituents in Mr. Diaz-Balart’s own district, many of whom regularly visit family in Cuba—is the latest attempt by hardliners in Congress to block people-to-people contact and prevent Americans from traveling or sending money to Cuba.
Always wanted to visit Cuba? Well now you can — legally.

Thanks to policy changes by President Obama earlier this year designed to encourage more contact between Americans and citizens of the Communist-ruled island, the Treasury Department is once again granting so-called “people-to-people” licenses, which greatly expand travel opportunities for Cuba-bound visitors.
June 2011
MIAMI -- U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart wants to reverse the Obama administration's efforts to allow more family travel and remittances to Cuba.
HAVANA (Reuters) - The number of Americans visiting their country's long-time foe Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to Cuban government figures, with the highest number in years likely in 2011.
May 2011
MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power was to get rid of Cuba’s golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.
April 2011
Would you consider a trip to Cuba if restrictions on U.S. travel to the island were lifted? A U.S. consumer survey released Tuesday found that 75 respondents would visit or at least consider a trip to Cuba, if Americans were allowed to travel freely there.
January 2011
HAVANA -- A salsa band, dancing schoolchildren and showgirls in bikini tops and feather headdresses welcomed some 1,500 tourists on a British cruise liner that officials described as among the biggest ships to visit Cuba in years.
August 2010
August 28th, 2010 - HAVANA — Cuba has begun allowing foreign investors to lease government land for up to 99 years, a step toward a future that could be filled with golf courses ringed by luxury villas, beachfront timeshares and vacation homes for well-heeled tourists. But while overseas developers are cheering, some caution that the communist island has been down this road before, embracing foreign ownership with an eye toward bolstering tourism revenues — only to scrap those reforms when the economy improved and profit margins no longer seemed as important as maintaining state control of commerce. A decree that was published as law Thursday loosened property laws enough to allow 99-year leases for foreigners. A measure appearing the following day expanded self-employment, letting Cubans grow and sell small amounts of farm products out of their homes or special kiosks. Large agricultural holdings are state-controlled, but small farmers were already allowed to work their own land. The law will allow more Cubans to do so and let them sell what they produce, but will also make them pay taxes on their profits. The moves are significant as President Raul Castro promises to scale back the state's near-total dominance of the economy while attempting to generate new revenue for a government short on cash. Still, it's too early to herald a new Cuba, said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. "I don't think it's going to open a floodgate. I think it may turn on a tap so that people know there's water," he said. Far more optimistic was Robin Conners, president and CEO of Vancover-based Leisure Canada, which wants to build hotels, villas and two golf courses on a stretch of beach in Jibacoa, 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Havana. "We see the times are changing, so to speak," Conners said. Cuba already allowed leases of state land for up to 50 years with the option to extend them for an additional 25, but foreign investors had long pressed tourism officials to endorse 99-year lease deals to provide additional peace of mind to investors. The longer leases also mean lower interest rates on international banking mortgages, Conners said. "I think this is huge," he said by phone while vacationing in Paris. Conners' company hopes to begin construction on a luxury hotel in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar next year — with the project at Jibacoa and another plan for development on Cayo Largo, a cay off Cuba's southern coast, "not far off." Investors in Canada, Europe and Asia have been waiting to crack the market for long-term tourism in Cuba, built on visitors who could live part-time on the island instead of just hitting the beach for a few days. The U.S. bars its companies from doing business with Cuba. The change may also help Cuba embrace golf. Investment firms have for decades proposed building lavish 18-hole courses with luxury housing for foreigners. Despite years of grand plans, however, Cuba has just two golf courses and has yet to approve construction of any new ones — though the tourism Ministry says it would like to build 10 more. Andrew Macdonald, CEO of Britain's Esencia Hotels and Resorts, said his company had planned to start construction last year on the Carbonera Country Club, a $300 million development outside the resort of Varadero, but is still waiting for government approval. In addition to an 18-hole golf course, Macdonald's plan calls for 800 luxury apartments and 100 villas. "It's exceedingly good news," Macdonald said of the new rule. "It's been a long road. But having said that, it's very important for the country that they get each step right, and this is a very big step for them." The new law makes it clear Cuba is looking to boost profits, saying the step is necessary "for the sustainable development of the country and the international economy." While the longer-term leases could reshape international investment in Cuba, meanwhile, allowing more production and sales of agriculture products will likely have far greater impact on ordinary Cubans. The law marks the first major expansion of self-employment since Castro said in an address to parliament Aug. 1 that his government would reduce state controls on small businesses and private enterprise — a big deal in a country where about 95 percent of people work for the state. Cubans already sell fruit, pork, cheese and other items on the sides of highways across the country, fleeing whenever the police happen past. The new measure legalizes such practices by letting Cubans grow whatever they wish and sell it, while bolstering state coffers with new taxes on their earnings. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a dissident anti-communist and was jailed for his political beliefs in 2003 before being paroled for health reasons, called the decree "an intelligent move." "It's good, though still something very limited," Espinosa Chepe said.
HAVANA, Aug 26 (Reuters Life!) - The cash-strapped Cuban government will allow foreign investors to use state-owned land for up to 99 years in a change that is likely to bring developments of luxury golf courses to the communist island. The new law, published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, was said to be aimed at "facilitating the process of participation of foreign investment in international tourism" by giving "greater security and guarantee to the foreign investor in the real estate business." Cuban authorities have said that a dozen or so golf developments are under consideration as they seek ways to boost tourist revenues for the fragile economy. Before the legal change, which was decreed in July but not announced until Thursday, Cuban law permitted use of state lands for 50 years. Most land in Cuba belongs to the government. Foreign investors who have proposed the golf developments say the 99-year limit is necessary to attract buyers and make their projects, which will feature course-side homes, financially viable. Cuba, which discouraged the sport after the 1959 revolution, has only two golf courses. Cuba attracted about 2.4 million tourists last year, and is hoping golf will bring wealthier visitors to the island. Officials are also planning for the day when the United States, 90 miles (145 km) away, ends its longstanding ban on travel to Cuba. Legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress that would lift the ban that is part of the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. President Raul Castro has undertaken various reforms to improve the Cuban economy, with the goal of ensuring the survival of the communist system installed after the revolution that put his older brother Fidel Castro in power. Earlier this month, he told the national parliament that the government would grant more licenses for people to operate small businesses. In another decree published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, the government said it would allow small-time private vendors to sell agricultural products from roadside stands. The concept has been in use in some parts of the country since last year, but now is official national policy. (Reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Mohammad Zargham) .
May 2010

Cuba OKs residential projects linked to resorts

May 5, 2010

Will Weissert- AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba has approved construction of residential projects linked to resorts, the tourism minister said Tuesday, possibly opening the door for villas that could one day ring oceanfront golf courses and other vacation getaways. Manuel Marrero said the communist-governed island is on pace for its third straight record year of foreign visitors, and it hopes to continue expanding into the little-tapped golf market. He said the government has green-lighted "real estate for tourist purposes," without giving details. But the move may mean Cuba will allow tourist developments that include long-term residences - not just hotels catering to short-term visitors that now line the island's beaches. Investment firms in Canada and Europe have proposed building golf courses coupled with luxury housing under long-term leases with Cuba's government. Endorsing residential zoning for tourism could be a first, albeit small, step toward making those projects a reality. The decision would allow Cuba's "entrance into new segments and the realization of investments in areas with tourism potential that have yet to be exploited," Marrero said. The island has only one 18-hole golf course and hopes to build 10 more, but has yet to break ground on any projects financed by foreigners. Cuba has tried before to balance its drive for an egalitarian society with an appeal to foreigners seeking to own a piece of paradise. Scrambling for revenue in the late 1990s, the government authorized private foreign ownership of posh apartments in Havana and even signed a $250 million deal for beachfront apartments and timeshares with a Canadian company. Many of those project stalled, however, failing to draw enough foreign investment. Meanwhile, some overseas businessmen bought Havana apartments but allowed Cuban girlfriends to live in them - violating rules barring islanders from doing so, said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser at the U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council in New York. Cuba eventually bought out most of the residences it had hoped would be owned by foreigners. Kavulich said Marrero's announcement "is not new, it's renewed." "Part of the caution would be we've seen this before," he said. "They're bringing it back, that's a good thing, but we need to see what happens." Addressing a tourism fair at Morro Castle, a Spanish fort built in 1859 that guards the sea entrance to Havana, Marrero also said Cuba may exceed 2.5 million foreign visitors in 2010. More than 1.05 million foreigners had come as of the end of April, the most-successful four-month span since Cuba began promoting large-scale tourism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its billions in annual subsidies to the island. "It's been surprising because we began with January and February really bad - bad because of the financial crisis, because of many factors," Marrero told reporters after his presentation. "But March and April have been very good." In 2009, Cuban tourism rose 3.5 percent, with more than 2.4 million tourists coming, mostly from Europe and Canada, despite the global recession. But many visitors stayed fewer days than usual, and tour operators offered steep discounts to keep them coming, meaning revenues slumped nearly 12 percent. While the U.S. government doesn't permit most of its citizens to travel to Cuba, the Obama administration has eased restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting relatives here. But those who come for family travel are counted as Cubans, not foreign visitors. Marrero said 50 percent more Cuban-Americans visited early this year than during the same period last year, but offered no statistics. He said Cuba has 50,000 hotel rooms nationwide, many in establishments jointly operated by the government and private companies in Europe.
Cuba has announced plans to allow foreigners to develop golf courses, marinas and related land projects to boost the nation's tourism industry. Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Havana was in advanced talks with "several potential foreign partners". The Communist government is reportedly considering granting foreigners medium- to long-term leases of real estate, as Cuba prohibits foreign ownership. Havana hopes the measures will attract more affluent tourists to the island. Last year, some 2.4 million tourists visited Cuba, but many of them came for short stays and spent less money. 'Golf is key' "A policy was approved that permits real estate development associated with tourism, fundamentally golf courses, marinas and other complementary tourist investments," Mr Marrero said at Cuba's annual International Tourism Fair on Tuesday. He said the move aimed at "developing regions that today are virgin". The cash-strapped Caribbean island now wants to attract a more affluent, bigger-spending class of tourist and golf is seen as the key, the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana says. Currently there is only one 18-hole golf course in the whole of Cuba. However, there are plans for 10 new courses, several of which are in an advanced stage of planning. A number of European and Canadian investment firms have proposed building golf courses coupled with luxury sea front apartments and villas. But in a country with no real estate market, where Cubans are not allowed to buy or sell their homes, the government has long been wary of allowing foreigners to own property, our correspondent says. So under the new deal medium- to long-term leases may be allowed if linked to golf courses.

Cuba visitors must have travel health insurance

May 4, 2010

Will Weissert- AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba has quietly begun requiring foreign tourists and Cubans who live overseas to hold travel insurance approved by island authorities, while making those who don't have coverage buy a local policy that can cost over $3 a day. The new law took effect Saturday and mandates that travelers who can't show they have authorized insurance buy a policy from state-run Cubatur before being allowed into the country. A Cubatur kiosk at Havana's airport sold 113 policies on the first day alone, Ricardo Lopez, a Cubatur office manager, said Monday. The measure was made law in February, but there had been no mention of how it would be implemented. A government spokeswoman said officials were still waiting for details Friday night, hours before the law took effect. Lopez provided a government document explaining that kiosks selling health insurance had been established in international airports across Cuba. They accept U.S. or Canadian dollars, euros, British pounds and Swiss francs - though all prices are set in Cuban convertible pesos, pegged at US$1.08. A policy covering medical expenses up to 7,000 pesos, or $7,560, costs between 2 and 3 pesos ($2.16-$3.24) a day, depending on an array of factors. Travelers 70 or older or those planning to engage in high-risk activities will have to pay an unspecified additional premium. Lopez said he had not seen a list of what kinds of insurance was approved and from which countries, but said he had been told Cuba will accept state or private insurance from any country except the United States, given Washington's 48-year trade embargo. He said all foreigners - except diplomats and those who live here while working for oversees companies - would be required to show proof of insurance. But enforcement appears spotty. Interviews with five passengers getting off a flight from Toronto on Monday found that none had been asked to show insurance. A passenger who arrived earlier from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and one who came from Mexico City on Saturday also said no one asked them to show proof of insurance. A record 2.4 million foreigners came to Cuba last year, with Canada the largest source, followed by Britain, Spain, Italy and France. Like communist Cuba, all those countries provide their citizens with health care financed totally by taxes, and often reimburse the cost of care during overseas travel. Still, Canada is recommending its citizens visiting Cuba purchase supplemental health insurance. A Canadian government travel advisory says that "your provincial plan may cover only part of the costs and will not pay the bill upfront, as required." .
December 2009

Cuban officials try to sell U.S. travel operators on tourism

December 17, 2009

Lesley Clark, El Nuevo Herald

WASHINGTON -- Major U.S. travel operators gathered in a downtown Washington hotel Wednesday to listen to a pitch for business from Cuban government officials, who appeared on a giant screen via the Internet from Havana to tout the island. The meeting - which one of its organizers said was a first - came as travel companies eagerly eye congressional efforts to lift the restrictions that prohibit most Americans from traveling to Cuba. The operators watched promotional videos of tourists frolicking in the surf, lounging on sugar-white beaches and exploring old Havana. They asked Cuban officials when they would be ready for what the president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, Bob Whitley, called a "mass rush" of American tourists, should the ban be scrapped. Whitley's group sponsored the event along with the National Tour Association. "We are ready the first minute," Miguel Figueras Perez, a senior adviser to Cuba's Ministry of Tourism, told the group. "Let us know, please." Figueras provided a travelogue for the operators, pointing out the Floridita restaurant, the "place where Ernest Hemingway preferred to have his mojitos," and telling them tourists in Cuba could "rent a car, you can go anyplace you wish." He said Cuba was safe, that there were "no drugs, no vices, no crimes against tourists" and that "no one is crazy to kidnap a bus with tourists." The event came as Cuba has refused to give the State Department access to an American contractor who was detained in Havana on Dec. 5 after handing out cell phones and laptops to Cuban dissidents. Kirby Jones of Alamar Associates, a Washington group that backs trade with Cuba, said he didn't expect the incident to affect efforts to ease the travel ban. "There's always political issues and there always will be, but work goes on," Jones said. Supporters of the travel ban contend lifting it would only further enrich and entrench the Castro government, which controls most aspects of Cuba's tourism sector. Jones asked the Cuban officials about complaints from some supporters of the travel ban that Cubans on the island aren't allowed to stay in hotels there. Figueras said it wasn't true. He said Cuba had built more than 100 hotels in the last two decades, as tourist arrivals jumped 11 percent each year. He noted, however, it took the island 30 years to get back to the volume it had enjoyed before the Eisenhower administration broke off relations with Cuba in 1961. Figueras said Cuba was looking to build 30 more hotels with 10,000 rooms over the next five years, but he acknowledged it needs more golf courses. He said the country estimated that since 1961, the travel ban had prevented 30 million Americans from visiting Cuba, at a price tag of $20 billion. He quoted congressional testimony from the American Society of Travel Agents to estimate that 1.8 million Americans would visit Cuba if the restrictions were lifted. He said it could mean more than $1 billion for U.S. airlines, tour operators and travel agencies. Whitley, who said his group passed a resolution in 1981 that advocated "open borders," said American tourists were eager to travel to Cuba. "Americans want to see Cuba. They really, really want to see it," he said. "Every cruise ship that leaves Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the market is going to demand a port of call include Havana." .
September 2009

Cuba hopes green tourism can keep it in the black

September 18, 2009

Will Weissert- AP, Miami Herald

BOCA DE GUAMA, Cuba -- Crocodile 0383 is too tiny to be menacing. Three weeks old and barely the length of a candy bar, the gray and brownish-yellow beast already has all 64 jagged teeth, which glint like crushed glass in the tropical sun. Yet his bites don't break the skin and a whipping from his Q-tip-sized tail only tickles. Though small, Cuba sees big potential in No. 0383, hoping he and thousands of other natural wonders can revolutionize a nascent eco-tourism industry. Amid dipping tourism revenues, the government gathered top leaders from its state-run vacation industry and European and Canadian tour operators this week for a conference aimed at boosting a segment of the market that only accounts for 4 percent of all foreign visits, according to deputy Tourism Minister Alexis Trujillo. "We will always be a sun and sand destination," he said. "But we want to diversify. Eco-tourism is the future." Trujillo expects Cuba to attract nearly 3 percent more total overseas tourists than last year's record 2.35 million, but said that price cuts to keep demand high amid the global recession means overall revenues will fail to meet the $2.5 billion generated in 2008. Cuba is betting environmentally conscious vacationers, who are often willing to pay premium prices and stay longer than those hankering for cheap beach getaways, can boost profits. Eco-tourists focus not only on nature - biking, hiking, bird-watching, scuba-diving - but also on the country's social and cultural charms, while trying to make as little negative impact as possible on nature. "There's enough to see and do that's green. It can get tourists coming and keep them coming," said a U.S.-based tour operator who has visited the island four times but asked not to be named because of possible repercussions from the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces Washington's 47-year-old trade embargo. American tourists are effectively barred from traveling to Cuba, though many ignore the rules. "When the embargo is dropped and there are more U.S. tourists," she said, "Eco-tourism could be a boon. But it needs to be managed very carefully." A key attraction will be the national park near the Bay of Pigs where this week's conference was held - the Cienaga de Zapata, or Zapata Swamp. Cuba's equivalent of the Florida Everglades, it's the Caribbean's largest bioreserve, 1.5 million acres of mangrove-choked canals teeming with the wildest Cuban wildlife. Just 125 miles southeast of Havana, it features more than 1.5 million acres and 354 species of birds - from pink flamingos to the bee hummingbird, the world's smallest bird - plus 130 varieties of plants, dozens of which are found nowhere else on earth. The Boca de Guama crocodile farm that's home to No. 0383 and about 4,300 other Rhombifers, or Cuban crocodiles, is also a top tourist draw - though there are so many crocs that officials simply give them identification numbers rather than names. Constanze Walsdorf, a saleswoman for Aventura Tours in Freiburg, Germany, which offers about 15 environmentally friendly trips to Cuba, said business has remained brisk despite Europe's moribund economy. "There's a lot of interest," she said, "and it's growing." Cuba ranks among the world leaders in low greenhouse-gas emissions, but not necessarily by choice. Government restrictions on vehicles ensure that horse-drawn buggies outnumber cars in all but the largest cities. Heavy industry is so inefficient under state control that even though most factories rely on high-polluting, Soviet-era machinery, their output is low and the environmental impact reduced. A narrow highway runs alongside the marshes and is flanked by monuments to Cubans killed during the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Almost no Cubans live in Zapata, but there are tourist hotels, including bungalows perched on tiny islands in the wetlands. Speedboats take visitors through densely forested canals and lagoons where eagles glide overhead - but the vessels leave a layer of oil runoff on the water. Still, officials will cap group sizes so that hiking expeditions and other activities don't overwhelm the nature they come to see. Parts of the national park will remain off-limits entirely for their own protection. Back at the crocodile farm, all the reptiles are separated by size and kept in crowded concrete pens - breeding is the top priority, not constructing an idyllic spot for tourists. The largest lay with their mouths agape to cool themselves, so still that they look like scaly statutes except for haunting yellow eyes that follow visitors hungrily. When trainers toss in fish heads and crab legs at feeding time, the resulting frenzy is so violent that any injury drawing blood can prompt the pack to turn on one of its own. Crocs that bite down but don't capture any food in their jaws produce a spooky popping sound - a hollow puckering that sounds practically prehistoric. Crocodiles can live to 80, said farm director Andres Arencibia. Females lay up to 35 eggs per year with three-quarters of those born in captivity reaching adulthood. In the wild, only 15 percent survive, beset by predators, disease and cannibalism. Crocodile breeding began in 1962, when the animals were endangered. Now, about 6,000 live in the swamps around the farm, and about 300 adults are released into the wild from it each year, Arencibia said. Holding up a wiggling and writhing No. 0383, he smiled when the pointy-toothed tike emitted a crow-like squawk. "Give him some months," Arencibia said, "and his bite could take my fingers off." Cuba hopes its eco-tourism industry will grow just as fast.
July 2009

Airports Queue to Fly to Cuba

July 28, 2009

Paulo Prada, The Wall Street Journal

U.S. airports are pressing the government to broaden the list of ports of entry allowed to handle flights to and from Cuba, even though the White House is proceeding cautiously with changes in travel policy. In a recent letter, Peter Horton, the director of Key West International Airport in Florida, urged the Treasury Department to add the facility to the list of three big international airports in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. Earlier this year, Tampa's airport made a similar request. And airport officials in Houston, already one of the biggest gateways between the U.S. and Latin America, say local business leaders have pressed them to push for access to Cuba, too. View Full Image Associated Press A new Key West airport departure terminal, opened in February, is part of a big expansion of passenger facilities. In April, the Obama administration eased restrictions on travel and money transfers to the island by U.S. citizens or residents with family in Cuba. The recent requests are an effort by cities and airports to position themselves ahead of any further loosening of travel policy. "Cities are looking to get ready for any other moves that could mean more travelers flying back and forth between the two countries," said Kirby Jones, a consultant in Bethesda, Md., who advises companies on business with Cuba. A spokeswoman said the Treasury couldn't comment on specific requests for changes to existing travel policy, but that requests were reviewed when received. Under Treasury rules, travel to Cuba by Americans is restricted to family members of Cuban citizens, government officials, academics and others who qualify for special licenses to travel there. About 50,000 American travelers, most of whom traveled by charter flights, received licenses last year. If the travel ban were lifted, eventually as many as one million Americans a year would visit Cuba, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, a federal agency. Already, charter operators say the changes earlier in the year have caused a spike in the number of Cuba-bound passengers. "There's a lot of pent-up demand," said Tom Cooper, chairman of Gulfstream Air Charter Inc., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., carrier that has seen a 25% increase in passengers on the flights it operates between Miami and Cuba. For decades, travel-related businesses have decried U.S. restrictions, designed to punish Cuba's Communist government, because the rules prevent what could be a lucrative market from developing. Last week, Orbitz Worldwide Inc., the online travel agency, emailed customers asking them to sign a petition urging the U.S. government to lift the ban on travel to and from Cuba outright. The message cites bills, introduced earlier this year in Congress, that propose to do that. The Obama administration, despite the easing of policy since it took office, hasn't prodded lawmakers to make the bills a priority. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that any further changes in travel policy, or the broader and longstanding economic embargo against the Cuban regime, would depend on whether Havana takes steps toward democracy. Still, airports angling for future Cuba service say they need to get ready. Mr. Horton, the Key West airport director, said the island's proximity to Cuba, plus the sizable Cuban-American community living nearby, are factors that would sustain a market for charter flights. The airport has been in the process of expansion and renovation this year. The airport's letter to the Treasury was accompanied by a letter from Cape Air, an East Coast carrier that flies to Key West, expressing interest in flying to Cuba. If demand for flights were to increase because of further lifting of restrictions, Mr. Horton said, "the last thing that we want is to get lost in the shuffle as people scramble to try to fly there." Write to Paulo Prada at paulo.prada@wsj.com .
May 2009

Charter companies flying to Cuba thrive

May 20, 2009

Damien Cave, New York Times

MIAMI — The crowd of Cuban-Americans pressing against the airport ticket counter scorned those on the other side. Only a handful of American charter companies have landing rights in Cuba, and with the new White House policy letting Cuban-Americans visit relatives there as often as they want, ticket prices have become political. “I paid $600 for a 45-minute flight,” said Carelis Sabatela, in loud Spanish, before checking in with a cart of heavy luggage. “It’s very high, super excessive.” Like many in line, she called for more competition, but as the current boom in reservations shows, this is not a normal business. Who flies and how much they charge is intimately tied to the 50-year feud between Cuba and the United States. Experts describe these charter companies as byproducts of a dysfunctional back-and-forth that has not ended — and that now promises to provide millions of dollars in profit to a politically savvy few. “The system exists solely because the relationship between Cuba and the United States doesn’t exist in its normal form,” said John S. Kavulich II, a senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan group that tracks trade activity in Cuba. “You have an abnormal service environment directly because of abnormal relations.” Today’s charter companies began in the late 1970s during a period of warming relations, and most owners figured that their role would be temporary. The companies survived not just because Fidel Castro and the American embargo kept larger carriers out; many of the owners have also played both sides, deploying money and favors under the cover of dual identities that let them connect with Cuban leaders one minute, Americans the next. John Cabanas, of C&T Charters, is perhaps the least known but the most powerful owner in a group that includes Vivian Mannerud, who followed her father into the business after he was convicted in the 1980s of “trading with the enemy,” in part for taking four Pepsi machines to Cuba; and Francisco Aruca, owner of Marazul Charters, who sneaked out of a Castro-run prison dressed as a child, but now praises Cuba on his Miami radio show. A large man, quick to laugh and partial to linen Guayaberas with a gold plane pinned to the collar, Mr. Cabanas, 66, grew up in Key West, Fla., but spent 28 years in Cuba. He says his company is the largest of the seven or eight that fly there regularly. Certainly since the new White House policy was announced last month, business is booming. “We used to send 15,000, 16,000 people a year,” Mr. Cabanas said. “Now I’ll probably handle 40,000 or 50,000.” He insists that his prices — though at least double the cost of flying to the Bahamas — are fair when seen in context. In his view, customers like Ms. Sabatela, who was traveling on a C&T flight to Camagüey, fail to appreciate the industry’s challenges. The past decade has been especially tough. The cost of fuel and jet rentals have increased while the Bush administration’s tighter travel restrictions in 2004 halved the number of legal American visitors from a peak of 135,000 in 2000, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The government has also demanded reams of paperwork from the charter operators, proving that they have complied with various rules — which led in part to a $125,000 penalty settlement that C&T paid in 1999. The Cuban government has demands as well: it prohibits the charters from hiring in Cuba, and charges $100 to $133 per passenger for landing rights, baggage claim and other services. Mr. Cabanas admits that the industry is “very controlled.” “My business is business,” he said. “But it depends on politics.” His office illustrates the point. In a back conference room, photographs on the walls show him with four very different leaders: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Fidel Castro and Álvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia. Since returning to Florida in the late ’90s, Mr. Cabanas has also spread more than $145,000 in campaign donations across the political spectrum. “Right now, I support Barack Obama,” he said, “even though I’m a Republican.” Mr. Cabanas had just come from a Cinco de Mayo party at the White House, but his connections and charm have done nothing to alter the controversial basics of his business. The industry “is in essence a protected monopoly,” Mr. Kavulich said. “There are a finite number of people in the marketplace, and you have to have the Cuban government’s authorization.” Cuban officials, he said, want as few companies as possible, and “if they can’t Google you and find you’ve opposed the commercial, economic or political position of the United States, you’re not likely to do any business.” That means approved operators earn a lot during open moments. A recent poll by Bendixen and Associates found that about 240,000 Cuban-Americans plan to travel to Cuba by the end of 2010. If round-trip tickets continue to hover around $500, with a 10 percent markup, that would be around $12 million in profit. In interviews, several charter operators described their flights as humanitarian and insisted that politics did not enter into conversations with Cuban officials. They all oppose the embargo, which puts them squarely in line with the stated desire of Cuban officials, but also with a growing swath of the 1.2 million Cuban-Americans in the United States. And yet, many here see the companies’ owners as relics of a past they would like to get beyond. For Cubans, the charters’ prices and profits are pinpricks in a wound that has not healed. Conservatives still accuse the charters of being collaborators. “They are a virtual cartel that control the travel sector from the U.S. to Cuba, charging egregious fees in collusion with Cuban authorities,” said Mauricio Claver Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington. More moderate Cuban-Americans are only slightly kinder. “Do they charge more than they should? They do,” said Andy S. Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. “Are there any other alternatives? None.” Well, not yet, but momentum for broader changes in Cuba policy has been building. Last week, Orbitz, the online travel company, began offering a $100 coupon for a vacation in Cuba to everyone who signed an online petition urging leaders in the United States to give all Americans the freedom to visit. Jose Fernandez, one of the dozens waiting here to board a C&T flight to Cuba, said he would welcome new alternatives. “The prices,” Mr. Fernandez said, “are out of balance with the moment.” .

Cuba invites foreign investors into beach resort

May 19, 2009

Daniel Thomas, Financial Times

Overseas private investors and homebuyers are to be given a rare chance to buy Cuban real estate in a move that marks a further loosening of the economic constraints imposed on the island since Fidel Castro seized power 50 years ago. Cuba is set to offer investors the chance to buy an apartment in an exclusive beach resort on the north coast. The leasehold will initially be for 75 years, although the resort's developer hopes to be able to convert it into a freehold. Esencia Hotels & Resorts, a UK company, expects to get the final go-ahead from the Cuban government in the coming weeks and hopes to begin marketing the resort in June. Andrew MacDonald, chief executive of Esencia, said Cuba's only previous foray into overseas property sales is believed to have involved a handful of leaseholds in the capital Havana eight years ago. "We are in the final stages of the project with the government, and hope to be started before the end of the year," he said. "The Cuban tourism market is growing strongly, so we anticipate significant interest in this." What's on offer The Carbonera Club will be a luxurious beachfront resort an hour's drive from Havana, near the tourist destination of Varadero. It will include a hotel, spa, 18-hole golf course and yacht club. The resort, which is being marketed by Savills, the estate agency, is expected to ask for a minimum of $1,500 a square metre for the most basic apartments. The designer is Sir Terence Conran and the architect is Rafael De La Hoz. Construction will be completed in 2011. Savills said there was likely to be little or no sales or capital gains tax, which would make it attractive to investors. The government says it is planning to open a series of hotels and resorts to improve tourism, one of its top-earning industries, over the next few years. The Caribbean island attracted more than 2m tourists last year, many from the UK and Spain. The resort will also be marketed in Canada, which unlike the US is not subject to travel and trade restrictions. Mr Castro nationalised private property when he seized power in the late 1950s, but Cuba has been moving towards a freer market economy in the past few years. He transferred leadership to his brother, Raúl Castro, in 2008.

High-rolling Cuba unlikely to return

May 12, 2009

St. Pete Times- Susan Taylor Martin,

Even as its economy slowly moves into the 21st century, Cuba still has the image of a place stuck in the '50s. That's largely because of all those big-finned Buicks and Cadillacs — relics of a colorfully corrupt era when Tampa's Santo Trafficante Jr. and other U.S. mobsters made Havana one of the world's gambling meccas. Could Cuba ever regain its place as the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean? (Assuming, of course, the demise of the very antigambling Fidel Castro.) "I seriously doubt it because there is so much more competition today," says Michael Pollock, publisher of the Gaming Industry Observer. "You're comparing an era when the only place to gamble in the United States was Las Vegas to an era where there's gambling in Florida and many other warm-weather climates. It may get gambling, but it wouldn't regain its position of a half century ago." Indeed, few places could compare with the Cuba of the '50s, when thousands of Americans drove their cars onto ferries for the 90-mile trip to Havana. There they found a sybaritic world of extravagant floor shows, high-stakes casino games and sex of every price and permutation. "The fabulous nightlife was used as a lure by the Cuban government to attract foreign investors, mostly from the United States," writes T.J. English in his book Havana Nocturne. "But to those who cared to look below the surface, it was apparent that Cuba's startling economic windfall was not being used to meet the needs of the people but rather to pad the private bank accounts and pocketbooks of a powerful group of corrupt politicians and American 'investors.' This economic high command would come to be known as the Havana Mob." Among the most corrupt politicians was Cuba's own president, Fulgencio Batista. In the early '50s, his grip on power seemed assured thanks to support from both the U.S. government, which saw him as a bulwark against communism, and American mobsters, who quickly realized he was a man they could work with. With Batista pocketing millions in kickbacks, the mob and its brilliant financier, Meyer Lansky, began developing an unparalleled gambling infrastructure. No sooner had Batista obligingly passed a "hotel law" — providing tax exemptions and automatic casino licenses — than several lavish hotel/casino projects hit the drawing boards. And few crime bosses were more receptive to Cuba's charms than Trafficante, whose control of Tampa's lucrative bolita racket had been threatened by congressional hearings on mob activities in the United States. Newly acquitted of bolita-related charges in 1954, Trafficante headed to Cuba where, as English writes, "gambling was legal, mobsters were welcome and profits were virtually guaranteed by the government." Within a few years, Trafficante owned or held stakes in such prime properties as the Tropicana, the legendary nightclub whose guests included Marlon Brando and Ernest Hemingway. Another visitor was a young U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy. On a 1957 trip for talks with the U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Kennedy spent a night at Trafficante's Comodoro Hotel, in a suite with three prostitutes and a two-way mirror. As English notes, Trafficante later kicked himself for not filming the dalliance — "it would have made terrific blackmail material." Not everyone was captivated by Havana's sexually-charged nightlife. To many Cubans, it was evidence of their country's degradation and plundering by greedy outsiders. Fidel Castro's own disgust stoked the revolutionary fervor that led to the overthrow of Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959. As Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, gambling was banned and most of the casinos trashed. Among those who lost everything: Trafficante, who spent months in prison before apparently bribing his way out. He later became the CIA's point man in a plot to assassinate Castro. Castro, of course, is now pushing 83. Trafficante died in 1987 at 72. And even if casinos eventually return to Cuba, the mob as it existed in Havana's heyday is long since gone. As Meyer Lansky put it: "I crapped out." Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Cuba teams with Qatar to build beach resort

May 8, 2009

AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba and Qatar signed an agreement Wednesday to build a $75 million, 450-room resort on a cay south of the island. The two parties will spend 14 months hammering out financing details for the five-star Gran Paraiso, or 'Great Paradise,' said Ghanim Bin Saad al Saad, president of state-owned Qatar Diar Real Estate Investment Co. Construction would take another year and a half. The joint project with the communist government's tourism concern, Gran Caribe, sends 'a clear message to the world that Qatar is on Cuba's side and supports its politics with respect to the rest of the world,' he told reporters. The resort is planned for Cayo Largo Sur, a strip of white sand, coral reefs and warm, calm waters 105 miles south of Havana that is already home to a cluster of high-rise hotels. The Gran Paraiso will also include 60 retreat villas, and Gran Caribe president Luis Miguel Diaz said it could be expanded in the future. Tourism is Cuba's second-largest moneymaker behind nickel exports. A record 2.35 million foreigners visited last year, mostly from Canada and Europe. That was a 9.3 percent increase over 2007. Foreign arrivals are up another 2 percent so far this year despite the global economic slowdown.
April 2009

Going to Cuba? Pack lots of cash

April 16, 2009

Martha Brannigan, Miami Herald

Travelers heading to Cuba will need cash -- and a good bit of it. Visitors suffer sticker shock at the island's lofty prices almost as fast as they notice Havana's colonial architecture. Most of the basic needs of travelers -- hotels, rental cars and restaurants -- are expensive compared to other Latin American countries. However, there are alternatives for traveling on the cheap, such as casas particulares, private homes whose owners have government permission to rent rooms to visitors. Earlier this week the Obama administration lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans as well as the limits on remittances they send to their families there, a move that is expected to prompt many South Floridians with family ties to make more frequent trips. Cuba may be just across the Florida Straits, but it's a world away: U.S. credit cards and debit cards won't work on the Communist island; neither will U.S. travelers' checks, so travelers should take plenty of cash. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban peso, known as moneda nacional, which Cubans typically get as salaries and use in routine purchases; and the Cuban convertible peso, which is called the CUC (pronounced kook) and informally known as the chavito by Cubans on the island. A Cuban convertible peso is worth 24 Cuban pesos, though most travelers have little use for the latter. Cuba officially sets the value of the CUC at $1.08, but the currency exchanges typically charge a rate of $1.12 for one CUC. On top of that, the Cuban government imposes a 10 percent surcharge to exchange dollars, which in effect makes $1 worth 0.804 CUCs at the currency exchanges or cambios. Conversely, it costs about $1.24 to get a CUC after all is said and done. The surcharge means travelers are better off switching dollars for euros, Canadian dollars or Swiss francs before leaving the United States. Those currencies don't get hit with the extra 10 percent fee. 'If you take dollars down, they get you in essence twice,' says John S. Kavulich, senior policy advisor to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that tracks the Cuban economy. ``Most people use Canadian dollars or euros.' CADECA, the government-run currency exchange, has locations throughout Cuban cities and towns for converting foreign money to pesos. Hotels and other tourist haunts will also change money, but they give even worse exchange rates. For a decade, from 1994 to 2004, the U.S. dollar circulated on the island as an über currency that could be used in so-called dollar shops that sold consumer goods such as electronics, clothes, toys and food items not available elsewhere. But in 2004, the Cuban government banned the use of U.S. dollars for most transactions in response to a Bush administration move tightening remittances to Cuba. Bush limited travel to once every three years for Cuban Americans and restricted remittances to $300 quarterly to a specific relative. That was when the Cuban government, as part of a 'de-dollarization,' instituted the 10 percent surcharge on converting U.S. dollars to Cuban convertible pesos. The surcharge also applies to dollar-based remittances to family members on the island -- something U.S officials hope Cuba will change in response to the Obama administration's new policy. At a White House briefing this week, Dan Restrepo, special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said the United States expects Cuba to ``stop charging the usurious fees that it does on these remittances.' Most people visit Cuba because of family ties, curiosity, business or cut-rate prices at seaside resorts, so the island isn't trying very hard to compete with other spots in the Caribbean. 'Business travelers are the proverbial bread and butter of revenue streams,' Kavulich says. ``I tell people if you think you're going to spend $200 a day, take $400, because it's expensive, and generally you're going to want to do something for someone.' .

Analyst: Cruises to Cuba unlikely anytime soon

April 15, 2009

AP, Miami Herald

The U.S. cruise industry is unlikely to expand to Cuban ports in the near future, an analyst noted on Tuesday, even if President Barack Obama further relaxes restrictions on travel to the communist island. On Monday, The White House said it will now permit Americans to make unlimited transfers of money to relatives in Cuba and to visit those family members as often as they would like. Cuban Americans were previously allowed to visit Cuba every three years and send up to $300 to relatives every three months. Broader travel restrictions and a trade embargo remain in effect, however, including a rule that bans ships from docking in the United States within six months of docking in Cuba. Wachovia Capital Markets analyst Timothy Conder, who has an 'Overweight' rating on the cruise sector, estimated that it will take one to three years before all the factors are in place for the cruise industry to begin calling on Cuban ports. He said the government would first have to end restrictions on travel to Cuba for all Americans and lift the trade embargo imposed on the country. 'We believe the recent overtures by the Obama administration toward Cuba are positive moves toward a more open relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, but are still only initial minor policy baby steps of change,' he said. Condor added that industry executives have estimated that it would take up to a year to begin calls on Cuban ports once broad restrictions are lifted, and between 18 and 24 months after Cuban government approval to build permanent port facilities for cruise ships. If the ban is lifted, Condor noted that cruise ships will be one of the best options for tourists to visit Cuba because hotel space is limited in the country. In afternoon trading, shares of Royal Caribbean Cruises lost 45 cents, or 5 percent, to $10.78. The stock has traded between $5.40 and $35.15 during the past 52 weeks. Carnival Corp. shares fell 90 cents, or 3.4 percent, to $25.30. The stock has traded between $14.85 and $42.79 during the past 52 weeks.

Can Cuba cope with an onslaught of Americans?

April 13, 2009

Will Weissert- AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- A push in Congress to do away with U.S. travel bans on Cuba could set off a flood of American visitors to the long-forbidden island. But many wonder if a country where foreigners have long complained about lousy food, sluggish service and iffy infrastructure is ready for an onslaught of Americans unseen since the days of Meyer Lansky and Al Capone. Cuba has about as many hotel rooms as Detroit and most are already full of Canadians and Europeans. Experts say droves of Americans could drive up prices, unleash calls for more flights and cruises than Cuba can handle and force the government to tighten visa restrictions to regulate the stampede. "There is great pent-up demand," said Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, which opposes the travel ban. "It will have to be controlled by officials in Cuba, but also by U.S. tour operators to make sure the infrastructure is up to it." Bills in the U.S. House and Senate would effectively allow all Americans to visit. Trips for U.S. citizens with relatives here already got easier last month. Cuban-Americans can now come annually instead of every three years. Cuba began encouraging international tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its top feeder countries are Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain and France. Foreign tourist visits jumped 9.3 percent last year to a record 2.35 million, generating $2.7 billion or 11 percent more than 2007, the government says. Despite the global economic downturn, international visitor rates have increased 4.5 percent through February as compared to the first two months of 2008. An influx of Americans could create a lodging crunch. The communist state has partnered with foreign companies such as Spanish chain Sol Melia to offer about 46,000 hotel rooms across an island about the size of Pennsylvania. Some 17,300 of those rooms are concentrated in the beach resort of Varadero, 90 miles (140 kilometers) east of Havana. Cuba plans to build 30 new hotels nationwide to tap into the market for boutique accommodations. Some of those have been completed, but many aging properties have been shut down for remodeling, leaving the total number of rooms flat since 2006. According to Smith Travel Research, the 349 hotels in Miami and Hialeah alone have about as many rooms as all of Cuba. The city of Detroit, with 42,000-plus hotel rooms, is not far behind. Even at top Cuban resorts, it is often hard to get amenities as basic as an extra roll of toilet paper. Comforts including apples, french fries and bottled beer are sometimes scarce - not to mention perks like in-room coffee-makers or wireless Internet access. And, as in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, international tourists complain about sub-par food and service. "You have maybe five hotels that you could consider decent enough for Americans and their standards, but if they are already running at 60-70 percent occupancy during high season, where are all these new people going to stay?" asked John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. Many travelers bypass hotels for rented rooms in Cuban homes. But the government does not allow those offering home-stays to rent more than two rooms, and few are hopeful those rules will be eased, no matter what happens to the U.S. travel ban. "More demand won't mean anything unless the government changes things," said Concha Perez, who offers rooms in her home in Havana's Plaza de la Revolution district. U.S. travel to Cuba is not illegal, but spending money here is - except with special authorization like that for journalists and some businesses. In 2007, the latest figures available, about 40,500 Americans visited the island, most presumably on the sly. Tracking U.S. family visits is difficult since authorities count Cuban-Americans as Cubans. Just how many U.S. travelers would come if Cuba weren't off-limits is a guess. The American Society of Travel Agents estimated in 2007 that nearly 1.8 million Americans could visit in the first three years after travel rules were loosened. To control the flow, the government might tighten rules on visas. Currently, tourist cards can be purchased at airports outside the U.S. or through travel agents. "The Cuban government may go, 'Just because you say your people can come doesn't mean we have to let everyone in,'" Kavulich said. "People forget the United States is not the only one with a say." Cuba has long welcomed U.S. tourists with few questions asked and officials say they have taken no special precautions to prepare for more Americans. Deputy Tourism Minister Maria Elena Lopez said Cuba understands that aspects of its tourism industry need to improve. She singled out beach hotels overdue for renovations and a lack of golf courses: a 9-hole course in Havana and Varadero's 18-hole club are the only ones on the island. But instead of the beach or the links, many U.S. tourists will hit Havana for its classic if crumbling architecture and streets choked with 1950s American behemoths. Americans "are all going to want to go to El Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio at the same time and there won't be space," Kavulich said, referring to two ever-crowded watering holes made famous by writer Ernest Hemingway. Whitley said the first wave of Americans could arrive by cruise ship and visit Havana only for a few hours, thus alleviating strains on hotels, restaurants and already hard-to-find taxis and rental cars. "There's going to be such a desire to see the country that people won't care if they are in a five-star hotel," he said. Whitley said U.S. airlines and charter companies could restore commercial service to Cuba in six months if the travel ban is lifted. Other industry watchers say U.S. carriers could shift flights to different airports around the island to ensure Havana isn't overwhelmed - at least until extra tourism generates enough revenue to improve infrastructure. Added demand for limited tourist accommodations could drive up prices that already have been high since 2004, when the Cuban government banned the U.S. dollar in official transactions and imposed a 20 percent tax on exchanging it. But Elliot Feldman, head of the international trade practice at Baker Hostetler LLP in Washington, said Cuba's command economy may cap prices and supply to create buzz. "They'd rather just have everything fully booked and make people wait a year or two to get a room than raise prices and hurt interest," said Feldman, who has traveled to Cuba and litigates international trade disputes. "Having to wait to go only adds to the mystique." .
February 2009

Cuba seeks tourism boost

February 2, 2009

David Adams, Miami Herald

VARADERO, Cuba -- On their first day of vacation at Cuba's top beach resort, Canadian couple Jim and Tammy Bosch enjoyed a midmorning cocktail in the Club Hemingway lobby bar of the Marina Palace hotel. 'It was minus 30 [degrees Celsius] when we left Canada,' said Jim Bosch, 49, a maintenance worker on the Montana border. Canadian tourists are flocking to Cuba in ever greater numbers, making tourism a bright spot in the island's otherwise bleak economy. Hit by three hurricanes, rising prices for food imports and a drastic fall in the price of nickel, its top export, Cuba's economy ended one of its toughest years since the fall of the Soviet Union almost two decades ago. 'Cuba is in a very, very dire economic situation right now,' said Antonio Zamora, a prominent Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who visits Cuba frequently. ``They need some sort of boost, and tourism is one place where it's going to come from.' Cuba saw record tourism in 2008 with 2.35 million visitors, generating more than $2.7 billion in revenue, a 13.5 percent increase over the previous year. The tourism boom is all the more surprising given the impact of the global economic crisis on travel to other Caribbean destinations. That can be partly attributed to the island's relatively cheap, all-inclusive packages -- as low as $550 a week, airfare included. The Bosches, part of a 36-strong wedding party, paid $1,078 each for their all-inclusive vacation at the five-star Marina Palace. The financial crisis has not hit as hard in Canada, which is easily Cuba's best client, sending 800,000 visitors last year. MASSIVE EXPANSION Cuba recently announced major joint ventures with foreign companies in the tourism sector: 30 new hotels and a total of 10,000 new rooms, a 20 percent increase. A 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo bars Americans from vacationing in Cuba, except for Cuban-Americans visiting family. American visitors numbered 40,500 in 2007. That could double after President Barack Obama fulfills a campaign promise to lift restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans, who are allowed one visit every three years. Loosening of regulations limiting licensed travel to Cuba for academics and cultural exchanges is also anticipated. Cuban officials say they aren't planning on it. 'Our philosophy is not to be surprised if it happens, but not to wait for it to happen in order to continue constructing new hotels,' said Miguel Figueras, a senior Tourism Ministry advisor. Tourism officials hope to entice Americans back to the island's annual Billfishing Tournament, named after Ernest Hemingway. The 59-year-old event, held in June, was popular with U.S. competitors until the Bush administration restricted travel. 'We hope in the next years with a new president, the American boats will start coming back,' said Figueras, noting that about 50 U.S. boats competed in 1999, out of a total of 80. Cuba needs all the financial help it can get from its tourism sector as it braces for a tough year, experts say. Last year, hurricanes caused $10 billion in damage, equivalent to 20 percent of the national income. TRADE IMBALANCE 'Hurricane recovery needs and high food and fuel prices pushed up imports 43.8 percent,' said Johannes Werner, Sarasota-based editor of Cuba Trade and Investment News. ``As a result, the trade deficit soared by 70 percent, or $5 billion, to $11.7 billion in 2008, twice as big as in 2007, and it's proportionally the highest in 13 years.' Cuba's cash crunch is likely to continue throughout 2009, Werner adds, although the government plans to slash expenses by half this year. The state's budget accounts 'simply don't square,' President Raul Castro said in a closing speech to the National Assembly on Dec. 27. Unable to support its pension system, the assembly voted to raise the retirement age by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. Recognizing the need for assistance, Cuba is on a diplomatic offensive to improve ties with its neighbors, culminating in December with its acceptance into the Rio Group, the largest club of Latin American nations. Castro has received major offers of economic support from Brazil and Venezuela. Castro may also open the economy to limited free market measures, some experts believe. Cuba recently said it would issue new taxi licenses to private car owners to compete with state cabs. The government also plans to redistribute idle state land to private farmers, though the process of handing it out has been slow. In his speech, Castro repeated one of his favorite themes: the restructuring of salaries according to employees' productivity, rather than egalitarian socialist principles of revolutionary sacrifice. 'Let's not deceive ourselves anymore. If there's no pressure, if there isn't a necessity to work to satisfy my necessities, and if they're giving me free stuff here and there, we'll lose our voice calling people to work,' he said. ``That's my way of thinking, and that's why everything I'm proposing is going towards that goal.' .
January 2009

Cuba aims to become tourist magnet

January 28, 2009

David Adams- St. Pete Times

VARADERO, Cuba — On their first day of vacation at Cuba's top beach resort, Canadian couple Jim and Tammy Bosch enjoyed a midmorning cocktail in the Club Hemingway lobby bar of the Marina Palace hotel. "It was minus 30 (degrees Celsius) when we left Canada," said Jim Bosch, 49, a maintenance worker on the Montana border. Canadian tourists are flocking to Cuba in ever greater numbers, making tourism a bright spot in the island's otherwise bleak economy. Hit by three hurricanes, rising prices for food imports and a drastic fall in the price of nickel, its top export, Cuba's economy ended one of its toughest years since the fall of the Soviet Union almost two decades ago. "Cuba is in a very, very dire economic situation right now," said Antonio Zamora, a prominent Cuban-American lawyer in Miami who visits Cuba frequently. "They need some sort of boost, and tourism is one place where it's going to come from." Cuba saw record tourism in 2008 with 2.35-million visitors, generating more than $2.7-billion in revenue, a 13.5 percent increase over the previous year. The tourism boom is all the more surprising given the impact of the global economic crisis on travel to other Caribbean destinations. That can be partly attributed to the island's relatively cheap, all-inclusive packages — as low as $550 a week, airfare included. The Bosches, part of a 36-strong wedding party, paid $1,078 each for their all-inclusive vacation at the five-star Marina Palace. The financial crisis has not hit as hard in Canada, which is easily Cuba's best client, sending 800,000 visitors last year. Cuba recently announced major joint ventures with foreign companies in the tourism sector: 30 new hotels and a total of 10,000 new rooms, a 20 percent increase. A 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo bars Americans from vacationing in Cuba, except for Cuban-Americans visiting family. American visitors numbered 40,500 in 2007. That could double after President Obama fulfills a campaign promise to lift restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans, who are allowed one visit every three years. Loosening of regulations limiting licensed travel to Cuba for academics and cultural exchanges is also anticipated. Cuban officials say they aren't planning on it. "Our philosophy is not to be surprised if it happens, but not to wait for it to happen in order to continue constructing new hotels," said Miguel Figueras, a senior Tourism Ministry adviser. Tourism officials hope to entice Americans back to the island's annual Billfishing Tournament, named after Ernest Hemingway. The 59-year-old event, held in June, was popular with U.S. competitors until the Bush administration restricted travel. "We hope in the next years with a new president the American boats will start coming back," said Figueras, noting that about 50 U.S. boats competed in 1999, out of a total of 80. Cuba needs all the financial help it can get from its tourism sector as it braces for a tough year, experts say. Last year, hurricanes caused $10-billion in damage, equivalent to 20 percent of the national income. "Hurricane recovery needs and high food and fuel prices pushed up imports 43.8 percent," said Johannes Werner, Sarasota-based editor of Cuba Trade and Investment News. "As a result, the trade deficit soared by 70 percent, or $5-billion, to $11.7-billion in 2008 … twice as big as in 2007, and it's proportionally the highest in 13 years." Cuba's cash crunch is likely to continue throughout 2009, Werner adds, although the government plans to slash expenses by half this year. The state's budget accounts "simply don't square," President Raul Castro said in a closing speech to the National Assembly on Dec. 27. Unable to support its pension system, the assembly voted to raise the retirement age by five years, to 65 for men and 60 for women. Recognizing the need for assistance, Cuba is on a diplomatic offensive to improve ties with its neighbors, culminating in December with its acceptance into the Rio Group, the largest club of Latin American nations. Castro has received major offers of economic support from Brazil and Venezuela. Castro may also open the economy to limited free market measures, some experts believe. Cuba recently said it would issue new taxi licenses to private car owners to compete with state cabs. The government also plans to redistribute idle state land to private farmers, though the process of handing it out has been slow. In his speech, Castro repeated a favorite theme: the restructuring of salaries according to employees' productivity, rather than egalitarian socialist principles of revolutionary sacrifice. "Let's not deceive ourselves anymore. If there's no pressure, if there isn't a necessity to work to satisfy my necessities, and if they're giving me free stuff here and there, we'll lose our voice calling people to work," he said. "That's my way of thinking, and that's why everything I'm proposing is going towards that goal." David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.
December 2008

Tourism thriving in Cuba

December 9, 2008

Miami Herlad- Will Weissert (AP)

HAVANA -- Cuba's vacation industry has remained as hot as the tropical sun, even as the world economic crisis sparks cancellations and layoffs elsewhere in the Caribbean. The communist country says it's booked solid through December and expects a record 2.34 million visitors this year -- largely because global financial woes have so far been softer on Canada, its top source of visitors. Luck also played a role: While the island suffered three devastating hurricanes, its key tourist sites were largely spared. And where beachfront resorts did get hit, the tourist-hungry government has made sure to repair hotels -- in some cases even before damaged homes and infrastructure. Tourism is Cuba's second-largest source of foreign income, behind nickel production. So while other islands in the region are laying off hotel workers and suspending construction of new property, Cuban resorts are gearing up for a strong season. 'We've had a few cancellations, but overall our numbers are still strong,' said David Gregori of WowCuba, a travel agency in Charlottetown, Canada, that specializes in bicycle trips and other Cuba tours. ``People still like to get away. They might try to save some money while doing it, but they're still traveling.' The number of foreign visitors has swelled nearly 11 percent this year, making up for four and three percent declines in 2006 and 2007, government figures show. Officials offer no explanation for those slower years. But tour operators blame the island's low returning-visitor rates: Some tourists complain of poor service, crumbling infrastructure and lousy food, indicative of a communist system where shortages are common and employees don't put customer service first. Still, the island is often cheaper than its subtropical neighbors, because many foreigners buy all-inclusive packages offering dozens of direct flights from Europe and Canada to airports all over Cuba, plus discounts on hotels, food and booze. Others are enticed by the prospect of seeing one of only five communist countries left on the planet. A lot of people go for a 'simple fly-and-flop holiday, and there are others who are going for history and culture, dancing, music,' said Julia Hendry, marketing director for Europe and the United Kingdom of the Bahamas-based Caribbean Trade Organization. Cuba has both, she said, ``whether it's swimming and beach or the excitement of Old Havana and Cuban history.' About 35 percent of this year's tourists have been Canadian, with 635,000 visiting through September, one-fifth more than in the same period last year. Canada's economy has not suffered the same losses now sapping the savings of homeowners in the U.S. The number of Russian tourists rose 40 percent to top 28,000 through September, and Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero traveled to Moscow last month for more promotions. Visitors from Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany -- the top suppliers of tourists after Canada -- declined, however, between 3 and 5 percent. Washington's trade embargo prohibits Americans from visiting, though island immigration records show about 41,000 came last year, many presumably without permission. But not relying on U.S. tourists may now be a blessing. 'Canadians are going to keep coming, especially with snow at home,' said Helen Lueke of Sherwood Park, Canada, who has vacationed in Havana about once a year for decades. Alexis Trujillo, Cuba's deputy secretary of tourism, predicted full bookings at least through next summer. 'There's no doubt tourism is always sensitive to everything,' he said of global economic turmoil. ``But we don't think that for Cuba that will mean an important decrease.' Tourism generated $2.2 billion for Cuba in 2007. The government has announced no delays to a $185 million plan to upgrade more than 200 resorts and build 50 boutique hotels by 2010 -- not even after Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma hit within two months, causing more than $10 billion in damages and crippling farms and infrastructure across the countryside..
November 2008

Lifting of Cuba ban could hit rest of Caribbean

November 10, 2008

Benedict Mander, Financial Times

Fears are growing that the tourism industry in many Caribbean nations could suffer if Barack Obama, US president-elect, decides to weaken or lift the long-standing US embargo on Cuba. US passport holders are now banned from going to the island. But if American tourists - the Caribbean's biggest group of visitors - were granted unrestricted access to what is potentially the region's largest tourism destination, a "seismic shift" could hit the Caribbean, said Rafael Romeu, an International Monetary Fund economist who has studied the issue. What exactly an Obama administration will do on Cuba remains unclear. But any shift allowing US travel to the Caribbean's largest island could represent the single most significant change in US policy towards the region and its economies. While Cuba has suffered from strict trade barriers for the past half-century, the rest of the region has benefited as a result. Now, however, they will need to act quickly to prepare themselves for this large loss in what amount to implicit trade preferences - or suffer the consequences, said Mr Romeu. Destinations most vulnerable are those that depend heavily on US tourists, such as the Bahamas and Cancún. Others that have a higher proportion of European visitors, such as the Dominican Republic and Barbados, will be less affected. Mr Romeu expects a net increase of more than 10 per cent in the region's visitors as costs of visiting fall. About 1.4m people visit Cuba each year. But the island is expected to receive up to 3.5m Americans alone if the US changes its policy. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008.
October 2008

Cuba hopes for good tourism season amid problems

October 6, 2008

Marc Frank (Reuters), Reuters

HAVANA, Oct 6 (Reuters) - The two hurricanes that ravaged Cuba at summer's end won't keep tourists from the Caribbean island during the high season but global economic woes might, industry watchers said on Monday. They said there have been no cancellations of tours booked for the December-March peak season and that an expected increase in Canadian visitors should help offset any reduction in Europeans put off by rising air fares and other economic problems. That was good news for the country still recovering from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which struck within 10 days of each other starting on Aug. 30, causing extensive damage, including to hotels and infrastructure. The government said tourism increased 13 percent through August and will be Cuba's second most important foreign exchange earner after the export of medical and other technical services, at around $2.5 billion this year. "There will be some decline in tourism from Europe as air fares are up 30 percent, but we expect another big jump from Canada to make up at least part the difference, along with new markets like Russia," the representative of a European hotel chain told Reuters on condition his name not be used. Immediately after the storms, some tours to hard-hit areas were canceled, but not for the months ahead, he said. The hurricane season ends in November. "The hotels are completely taken by tour operators starting in late December and to date there have been no cancellations of flights or rooms." The bigger uncertainty now, he said, was the financial crisis roiling markets around the world. "We will have to see what happens with the global economy over the next months, but so far we see a good season despite it all." The number of tourists from Canada, already the top tourism country for Cuba, could rise as much as 20 percent to 30 percent because of the weakness of the U.S. dollar and increased marketing, the sources said. Cuba's currency is pegged to the dollar, which makes the country an inexpensive destination for Canadians seeking warm tropical beaches during their country's long winter. Few citizens from the nearby United States travel to Cuba because of their country's sanctions on the Communist nation. While the hurricanes inflicted $5 billion in damage on the island, key tourist areas like Havana and the Varadero beach resort were largely spared. Spanish firm Sol Melia (SOL.MC: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), which has 24 hotels in Cuba and is the largest foreign tourism company in the country, said it was back up to full speed after the hurricanes. "Sol Melia's hotels and resorts are open and operating normally after complete recovery from minor damage," said Gabriel Garcia, the company's marketing director in Cuba. (Editing by Jeff Franks).
September 2008

Despite storms, Cuba expects tourism to grow

September 27, 2008

AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA: Cuba expects tourism to increase 13 percent this year despite destruction from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which damaged colonial and coastal towns, and hit picturesque hideaways in the tobacco-growing west even harder. Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said Saturday that officials believe foreign visitors will top 2.3 million in 2008, up nearly 200,000 from last year. The sector is "bursting with vitality despite the passage of these hurricanes," he said during an event at the University of Havana. Cuba had previously announced that tourism rose 15 percent in the first quarter. Marrero said that dipped only slightly after Gustav smacked western Cuba in late August. Ike hit eight days later, slamming into the island's eastern tip and moving west over much of Cuba. Marrero said hotels and other tourism infrastructure were damaged in the provinces of Camaguey and Holguin and in tobacco-growing Pinar del Rio, home to the limestone mountain-flanked town of Vinales. But the beaches most popular with international visitors were largely spared. Foreign visitors to Cuba peaked at about 2.3 million in 2005 but slipped to 2.1 million last year ? dealing a financial blow to a nation that relies on tourism for much of its hard-currency revenue. Tourism brought in some US$2.2 billion last year. Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as top sources of visitors. Washington's trade embargo prohibits American tourists from coming to Cuba..
August 2008

Double-decker tour buses hit Cuba

August 4, 2008

Miami Herald- AP

HAVANA -- Red-and-blue, double-decker buses have begun bouncing down the Cuban capital's potholed streets on sightseeing tours inspired by those in locales from London to Mexico City. But instead of Piccadilly Circus or the Eiffel Tower, this ride lets visitors cruise past crumbling buildings frozen in the 1950s and gawk at billboards featuring Fidel Castro and the likeness of Ernesto 'Ché' Guevara that looms over Revolution Plaza. Stops include the Havana Hilton -- which Castro seized and renamed the Havana Libre, or 'Free Havana' hotel, when he took power in 1959 -- and Ernest Hemingway's favorite watering hole, El Floridita. Fitting on an island plagued by woeful public transportation, the tourist fleet features just 12 buses -- three of them double-decker. Still, Havana residents have begun to hop aboard just to get from place to place, since the tour buses offer some of the few direct rides from downtown to public beaches east of Havana. 'It gives you a good overview of the city,' Argentine tourists Karina and Carlos Oxandaburu said almost in unison aboard the upper deck of a tour bus on a recent Saturday. The were looking forward to touring Revolution Plaza, a sprawling, square of concrete where Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl have offices. The towering Guevara sculpture is affixed to an Interior Ministry building nearby. Stenciled with the English phrase 'Hop on! Hop off!,' the tour buses cover 95 miles along three routes. One leaves the plaza and heads to the historic district, stopping at La Floridita and the nearby Capitolio, a replica of the U.S. Capitol that's slightly taller than Washington's version. Another route goes down the beach-front Malecón boulevard, while the third leaves from Central Park and ends at Santa María, a beach east of the city. All three double-decker buses ply the Malecón. Two were special orders from China and the other is on loan from the beach resort of Varadero, 90 miles east of Havana. Gretel Gómez, commercial director for the state-run concern that handles transportation for tourists, said officials plan to add more double-decker buses by the end of the year. More than 2 million visitors come to Cuba a year, even though Washington's trade embargo prohibits American tourists. Gómez said more than 20,000 people have ridden tour buses since they began running May 6. She said officials first proposed double-decker buses for Havana in 2002, but tabled the plan because public transportation was so spotty that snazzy tour buses might have insulted ordinary Cubans. 'We had to wait until transportation got better,' she said. While problems persist, the government is spending $2 billion to import 3,000 modern, accordion-style buses from China. That opened the door for double-decker tours. Tour bus tickets cost about $6, and allow riders to get on and off at 44 stops. That's a lot of ground for not a lot of money -- so much so that some Cubans who live east of the city have begun climbing aboard as if they were normal buses. 'Every day it's more Cubans,' said tour bus driver Ernesto Gay. Still, almost everyone in Cuba works for the government, and the average state salary is $19.50 per month, meaning the trip is a luxury for many. 'It's ideal for getting to know the city,' said Edelma Rodríguez, a 54-year-old housewife who was riding a tour bus during a recent visit from her home in Matanzas province. ``It's a little expensive for Cubans, but once a year you can afford to have this kind of fun.' .
July 2008

U.S.-Cuba tourism could shake up region

July 28, 2008

Miami Herald- Andres Oppenheimer

For years, I have thought that Mexico and most Caribbean countries want Cuba to remain a dictatorship subject to U.S. travel sanctions for as long as possible, because an eventual opening of U.S. travel to Cuba would badly hurt their own tourism industries. But now, I'm beginning to wonder whether that's true for all of Cuba's competitors. After reading a new study by the International Monetary Fund, I can't help but conclude that Mexico would stand a lot to lose by an opening of U.S. tourism to Cuba, but many Caribbean islands would not suffer at all. On the contrary, the study says overall tourism to the Caribbean would increase by up to 11 percent. The study, 'Vacation Over: Implications for the Caribbean of Opening U.S. Cuban Tourism,' was published by the IMF as a 'working paper' by its economist, Rafael Romeu. It comes at a time when an opening of U.S. travel to Cuba looks increasingly plausible in the near future. Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama is vowing to relax U.S. travel restrictions on Cuban Americans if he is elected. And, independently of U.S. policy, Cuba's ruling gerontocracy is not likely to be able to maintain the status quo for many years -- if anything else because President Raúl Castro is 76, and his No. 2, José Ramón Machado Ventura, is 77. According to the IMF study, 'an opening of Cuba to U.S. tourism would represent a seismic shift in the Caribbean's tourism industry,' and would ``increase overall arrivals to the Caribbean.' This is because there would be a massive surge in U.S. tourism to Cuba, which would overwhelm Cuba's hotel room capacity and drive Canadian and European tourism currently vacationing in Cuba to be redirected to neighboring countries. As a result, 'the region would enjoy a period of sustained demand,' it says. ``In the wake of this change, some countries would potentially stand to lose U.S. tourists but would gain new non-U.S. tourists.' Currently, the biggest tourism destinations in the Caribbean, in addition to Puerto Rico, are the Dominican Republic, with 2.2 million foreign visitors a year; Mexico's resort of Cancún, with nearly 2 million tourists; the Bahamas, with 1.4 million tourists; Cuba, with 1.3 million, and Jamaica, with 1.2 million. The figures reflect annual arrivals between 2000 and 2004, and have since gone up somewhat, Romeu says. But an opening of U.S. tourism to Cuba would shake this mix immediately, because an estimated 3 million to 3.5 million American tourists would flock to Cuba, the study says. Much of it would be because traveling to Cuba -- in addition to being a novelty -- would become substantially cheaper. Currently, the cost of traveling from the U.S. to Cuba for Cuban Americans and others exempted from travel restrictions is equivalent to that of traveling to Australia. According to the study, there would be winners and losers from an opening of U.S. tourism to Cuba: • Mexico's resort of Cancún, which relies heavily on U.S. tourists, would be a net loser. It would lose 614,000 American tourists, while it would gain only 93,000 non-U.S. tourists. • The Bahamas, which also relies heavily on U.S. tourists, would lose 499,000 U.S. tourists, while gaining 36,000 non-U.S. tourists. • The Dominican Republic, which has a highly diversified tourism base, would be a net winner. It would lose 318,000 American tourists, while gaining nearly 400,000 non-U.S. tourists. • Smaller islands such as Martinique, Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and other countries with strong ties to European countries would also be net winners. Barbados, for instance, would lose 48,000 American tourists, but would win 64,000 non U.S, tourists. 'It won't be a disaster for many countries, because many of them will more than offset the loss of U.S. tourists with a greater influx of European and Canadian tourists, with whose countries they have age-old cultural ties,' Romeu told me in an interview. My opinion: Interesting stuff. I don't know whether Mexico -- the biggest loser in an eventual opening of U.S. tourism to Cuba -- is currently cozying up with Cuba's dictatorship because it wants to maintain the status quo for as long as possible. But I wouldn't be surprised if there is a link between tourism and politics in the Caribbean -- which would explain a lot of things that sometimes seem hard to understand.
May 2008
VARADERO, Cuba -- Edis is accustomed to getting chased off tourist beaches. Looking to make money braiding tourists' hair on Varadero, she parks herself on a patch of sand between tourist hotels to avoid trespassing. Then she gives security guards a knowing nod that seals their illegal pact: For every $30 she earns, a guard will get six. 'They like to keep the Cubans and the tourists separate,' Edis explains. ``I have been taken to jail four times. I don't consider myself to be a criminal. I am just struggling to live.' Shortly after becoming Cuba's leader three months ago, Raúl Castro ruled that locals could stay at tourist hotels and visit exclusive beaches -- ending a long-standing policy that Cubans found inherently unfair, never mind unconstitutional. Heralded as the end of 'tourist apartheid,' the measure was the first in a series of steps Castro took to address Cubans' biggest grievances. While the island's 11.2 million residents are now free to blow their savings at exclusive resorts in Varadero -- a tourist mecca 60 miles east of Havana -- reality is more complicated. Hotel stays can cost $30 to $200 a night, and with salaries averaging $17 a month, few Cubans can take the government up on the opportunity. So beaches here remain filled with Europeans and Canadians, and women like Edis walk the seashore in search of work, tips and handouts. `STRUGGLE' The result is a vast racial divide that stretches along the Cuban shoreline. Mostly white foreigners are on hotel lounge chairs -- while mostly black Cuban women walk along the beach dodging security. They are professional panhandlers thinly veiled as hairstylists who come empty-handed each weekend and leave with bags of hotel shampoo, clothing donated by tourists and, if they are lucky, at least $24 for doing someone's hair. 'The security guard over there knows I'm here, and if he has not said anything to me, it's because he is waiting for the $6 he will get,' said Edis, who rises at 5:30 a.m. for the three-hour journey from her home in central Matanzas. ``What I do on the beach is struggle. The lower-class people come here to talk to the tourists -- to ask for things -- because we have a lot of needs.' INVISIBLE BARRIER Edis and others in the same predicament had hoped the new rules allowing Cubans to use the beach and hotels would compel security guards to let them do their work, even if earning dollars not sanctioned by the government remains prohibited. For these women, the new permission that allows Cubans to cross the invisible barrier -- which has long separated the western end of Varadero where Cubans congregate from the resorts reserved for tourists -- is something of a joke. 'Supposedly we have the right to use the beach now,' said Elisa, who was with her daughters seeking hair-braiding customers. ``As long as I stay here in the water -- that's true -- nobody bothers me. But the second I step my foot on the sand and approach the hotel, boom, the security guards will sweep down and kick me out of here. 'That's how it was last year, and that's how it is now,' she said. After taking office Feb. 24, Castro spent his first months on the job enacting consumer-related measures that permitted not just hotel stays, but also the sale of cellular telephones, DVD players, microwave ovens and computers. A select class of Cubans who have tourist-industry jobs, run illegal businesses or have relatives in the United States who send remittances have flocked to stores to take advantage of the new purchase rules. `OFFENSIVE' Even while consumer goods are flying off store shelves, most Cubans interviewed by The Miami Herald said a $150 hotel stay is a luxury that is hard to justify -- even if Castro scored political points. 'Cubans found the hotel prohibition offensive,' said Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University. ``Lifting that prohibition is not going to change Cuba very much, but it removes the sense of feeling they are in a prison. Not living under those circumstances, it's hard to imagine how important that is.' `IMPORTANT' Other Cuba watchers agree that even though most Cubans are excluded from Castro's consumer reforms, he has succeeded in gaining political capital -- even if he risks later creating a racial and class divide. 'Being able to stay at hotels is symbolically and psychologically important,' said Katrin Hansing, interim associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. 'It has given Cubans a sense of `now we can.' People feel free -- it's the weirdest thing. This is something they wanted to do forever, and now they can.' `OUTRAGEOUS' Hansing, who recently returned from living for about 10 years in Cuba, warned that Castro is taking a bit of a gamble. 'The rates are outrageous, so this is going to be a short-term euphoria,' Hansing said. ``Who has money and who does not is going to become more visible. People who don't are often not white. This could get problematic.' The measure to allow Cubans to stay at hotels also raises questions as to how the government will be able to control prostitution. Some Cuban women, dubbed jineteras, earn a living by finding foreign 'boyfriends' who buy them gifts. Until now, those relationships were generally restricted to hotel lobbies. In the past, Cuban guests were not allowed into a guest's room. Now, they can go up, but they must register with the front desk, even if the foreigner is paying the bill. 'Now the girls come in with the foreigners, and it's not my problem,' said a Havana hotel doorman who said he was not authorized to give his name. 'You know what I say? `Have a nice evening.' I'm sure that later, when she pops up two or three times on hotel registries, it will be a problem. But not with me.' `FOUR CATS' Yadeli, a security guard at a Varadero hotel, said he has seen three Cubans stay at his luxury resort in the three months since Castro lifted the ban. 'That new law helps maybe four cats,' he said, using the Spanish expression for 'very few people.' ``As I do the math, I see I will never be one of those cats. I make $22 a month, and a room here is $150.' So he spends his day on the beach in a necktie, stopping Cubans who try to enter his hotel. 'It's not that as Cubans you can't walk up and down this beach. You can walk up and down all you like,' he said. ``I just want to know what you are doing, and I would stop you from coming inside if you are not a guest.' `KEEP WALKING' Beatriz, 30, knows exactly what Yadeli means. 'They are letting more Cubans on the beach now. Look around; you'll see some,' she said a few minutes after being questioned by a guard. ``But if security sees you talking to somebody, forget it. So we can be on the beach; we just have to keep walking.' The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who wrote this report and the surnames of some of the people quoted because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island..

Cuba embraces golf to boost tourism

May 8, 2008

Reuters- Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - The only time Cuba's Fidel Castro is known to have played golf in 1961, in a stunt thumbing his nose at the United States. Now that Fidel has handed over power to his brother, Raul, Communist Cuba is setting aside any ideological objections and is embracing golf, the most capitalist of sports. Investors from Canada and Europe have proposed building gated communities with luxury hotels, villas and condos surrounding 18 and 36-hole golf courses near beach resorts across the Caribbean island. Some of the projects, which include one by top British architect Norman Foster's firm, have been on the drawing board for years and their backers are hoping Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, will give them the green light to revive golf. "Old-school objections to golf on ideological grounds have fallen away," said Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Havana who now consults to foreign companies planning to do business here. "Golf is seen as important to develop a more sophisticated and repeat tourism beyond sun and sand," said Entwistle, who is advising one of the golf community projects. Since succeeding his brother, Fidel Castro, in February, Cuba's first new leader in almost half a century has set about lifting restrictions in the one-party socialist state, such as allowing Cubans to stay at hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists. He does not appear to share his famous brother's abhorrence for the bourgeois sport of golf. There are today at least 10 golf resort projects in the pipeline at various stages in the approval process, Entwistle said. The only time Fidel Castro was seen armed with a putter instead of a gun was two years after seizing power in the revolution in 1959 that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and changed Cuba from a Mafia playground into a Soviet ally. That was in March 1961, one month before the disastrous landing by CIA-trained Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Tensions were running high between Havana and Washington, and Castro played golf with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, wearing military fatigues and boots, as a publicity stunt. Guerrilla icon Guevara at least knew how to play the game, having worked as a caddy as a boy in Cordoba, Argentina. But the Colinas de Villareal golf course where the two revolutionaries played was soon turned into a military camp. Havana's elite Country Club was taken over and its fairways became the grounds of Cuba's top arts and music school. Today, Cuba's capital has only one 9-hole course, the former British-owned Rovers Athletic Club, where foreign businessmen and diplomats play. The rugged course has seen better days -- sticks are used for flag poles on the parched greens. Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona played there almost every day when he lived in Cuba undergoing treatment for cocaine addiction. XANADU CLUB HOUSE The only new golf course since the Cuban revolution was opened in 1998 at Cuba's prime resort of Varadero after the country opened up to foreign investment and tourism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 18-hole Varadero Golf Club is on the grounds of Xanadu, a seaside mansion built by U.S. chemical industry millionaire Irenee du Pont. Cuba's new interest in golf arises in response to the stagnation of its $2 billion-a-year tourist trade, which saw the number of visitors dwindle in 2006 and 2007. Cuba has no choice but to build new golf courses if it wants to compete with other Caribbean resorts in Mexico, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, a smaller country that draws more tourists than Cuba and has 22 golf courses, says Miami lawyer Antonio Zamora, an expert on Cuban real estate. "If you have a tourist industry you have to offer tourists what they want, and they want golf courses as much as they want beaches, pools and entertainment," Zamora said. But no developer builds a golf course if there is no real estate involved, and that has been a hurdle for proposals made by foreign entrepreneurs, who would need leases of 50 to 75 years before they could commit to a project. Cuba does not allow foreigners to own property and is not expected to do so in the near future. The Cuban government has yet to approve a single golf project as it debates whether to allow long-term leases, said Zamora. Leisure Canada Inc, a Vancouver-based venture run by mining and real estate developer Wally Berukoff, has waited more than a decade for approval to build a gated community with sea-front hotels, time-share villas, health spas and 18-hole golf courses at Jibacoa, 40 miles east of Havana. Leisure Canada has even signed a licensing agreement with Britain's Professional Golf Association to promote world class golf and tournaments in Cuba, the company's website says. One project that is likely to move ahead -- because it does not involve real estate -- is the Hicacos marina and golf resort to be built in Varadero by French engineering group Bouygues S.A. for Gaviota, the Cuban army's tourism company. (Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Eddie Evans).
April 2008
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba announced Wednesday that its crucial tourism industry appears to be recovering from a two-year slump, with a 15 percent increase in visitors during the first quarter of the year. The number of international visitors topped the 1 million mark on Monday, 22 days faster than last year, state-controlled news media reported. Officials credited well-attended conferences and trade fairs for the increase, singling out an ongoing gathering dedicated to cultural tourism that has attracted more than 1,000 visitors. Maria Elena Lopez, a vice minister of tourism, reported a 15 percent increase in foreign visitors this year compared with the first three months of 2007, but she did not provide further data, according to the Communist Party daily Granma. The number of foreign tourists peaked at about 2.32 million in 2005, but slipped to 2.15 last year, according to official statistics. Officials said the decline of 70,000 visitors in 2007 cut revenues by nearly US$14.5 million (euro9.3 million) below 2006 levels — a blow to a nation that has turned to tourism to generate much of its hard currency revenue. Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo prohibits American tourists from coming to Cuba. Canada, Britain, Spain and Italy rank as top sources of visitors to the island. Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in February and promptly dropped bans that had kept ordinary Cubans from staying at luxury hotels and renting cars, which might help bolster tourism during off months when fewer foreign visitors come..
March 2008

Cuba's tourism industry profitable but troubled

March 25, 2008

Miami Herald- Mike Williams (Cox International)

Havana, Cuba —- Less than two decades after its economy imploded with the collapse of its Communist sponsor, the Soviet Union, Cuba has rebuilt itself as a Caribbean vacation magnet that now draws more than 2 million visitors annually. But while the $2 billion Cuba now earns annually from tourism has helped rescue its moribund economy, experts say the Communist island faces a daunting list of problems that leave it vulnerable. Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, who took over the island's top post in February after his brother, Fidel, retired due to illness, must somehow reverse low productivity and wages, stop endemic pilfering, unravel currency problems that are creating income inequalities and spur farmers to grow enough food to feed the island's 11 million residents. "It's a stagnant society," said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College. "Cuba is poorer now than it was before the revolution in the late 1950s, and most economic indicators have not reached the levels of the late 1980s before the collapse of the Soviet Union." That said, Cuba has made a remarkable recovery since the "Special Period" in the early 1990s when the island lost an estimated $6 billion in yearly Soviet subsidies and scarcity plagued the Cuban people. Fidel Castro responded by turning to tourism. Slowly Cuba stumbled out of the crisis, its economy stabilizing if not exactly prospering. Despite the controversy, most American scholars agree the Cuban economy is growing. In addition to $2 billion in tourism earnings, the island has been buoyed by high prices for nickel, earning another $2 billion there, along with $400 million from sales of its world-famous cigars. But other indicators are worrisome to outside economists. Cuban residents depend on an estimated $800 million to $1 billion a year in remittances from relatives abroad, primarily in the United States, while the Cuban state appears to be replacing its old Soviet sponsor with a generous new patron, Venezuela. That country's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, sells 100,000 barrels of oil to Cuba a day at $27 a barrel, providing a $2 billion annual windfall for the Cubans, said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh. Cuba repays Venezuela by sending about 30,000 medical and social workers to provide services to Chavez's impoverished supporters. Apparently hedging his bets, Raul Castro has inked trade deals with China, Iran and Brazil, opening new lines of credit worth billions. But even as Cuba has signed new deals with foreign countries, it has cut back on partnerships with foreign firms. Some foreign companies have complained bitterly about rules governing the hiring and payment of workers and other red tape. Cuban officials say they are reducing partnerships with smaller foreign companies to concentrate on big players in essential sectors, primarily deals with firms from Canada, China, India, Brazil and Venezuela to exploit Cuba's nickel and offshore petroleum. But even as it makes progress in these sectors, Cuba is hobbled by its inability to feed itself. With its farm system beset by inefficiency and poor incentives, Cuba last year imported $1.6 billion in food. To address this problem, in recent months Raul Castro has settled long-standing debts between the state and Cuban farmers, raised prices for milk and beef, increased farm worker pay and exhorted growers to plant more. But even as he pushes these reforms, he's still dealing with the fallout from a 2005 decision to drastically cut back the island's once-vital sugar industry because of low world prices. Dozens of mills were shuttered and about 150,000 sugar workers were thrown out of work. While the Cubans claim they have been retrained and that national unemployment is less than 2 percent, outside economists think the numbers are two to three times higher. Meanwhile, Cuba is experiencing a "brain drain," with skilled professionals leaving the island if they can, or giving up jobs as engineers or physicians making $15 a month to work in tourism, where they can earn far more. The scramble by Cubans to work in tourism highlights yet another problem, Cuba's dual-currency system. Most Cubans are paid in regular pesos, while those who work in tourism have access to the convertible pesos tourists are required to use. The convertible pesos are worth 25 times more than regular pesos, creating huge income disparities and smoldering resentments among the populace. "Raul knows the dual currency needs to be eliminated," said Paolo Spadoni, an economist at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "The income inequality is a big problem." Yet another headache is pilfering and black market activity. While all Cubans get free food rations from the state each month, the handouts typically only last a week to 10 days. It's not surprising that many people steal from their workplace and sell the items on the black market, a practice so common that state-run companies reportedly factor 15 percent into their budgets to cover the losses. "It's a real drag on the Cuban economy," Spadoni said. "It comes back to the crucial issue of incentives. They have to address this, but so far all they've done is call for more discipline, which won't solve the problem." FOREIGN PARTNERS Tourism is Cuba's top industry, earning some $2 billion last year for the Communist island. Many foreign firms have partnered with the Cuban state in the sector, typically deals in which these companies manage hotels. Among the top foreign tourism companies active in Cuba: > SPAIN: NH Hotels, Sol Melia Hotels > FRANCE: Accor Hotels > JAMAICA: Super Clubs.
May 2007

Cuba to spend $185 million for tourism

May 18, 2007

Miami Herald- Andrea Rodriguez

HAVANA -- Cuba says it will spend about $185 million to upgrade more than 200 resorts, golf courses, marinas and other facilities in a bid to reverse a dip in tourism to the island. The government has said the number of visitors to island dropped by about 100,000 last year to 2.2 million, hitting the communist nation's leading source of income. Washington's 45-year-old trade embargo prohibits American tourists from coming to Cuba and chokes off most trade between the countries. Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero announced the development plan last week at a tourism fair that was closed to the international press. The plan detailed this week in Opciones, a state-run newspaper for foreign investors, will run through 2010 and seeks to make Cuba more competitive. Some $162 million will be used to upgrade non-hotel facilities, such as golf courses, yacht clubs and theme parks. Other funds will be used to build 50 boutique inns around the country in addition to 10 already under construction and to improve the country's outdated highways, Marrero said. Opciones did not say how many tourists have visited Cuba so far this year, but quoted Marrero as saying that "in 2007, for the fourth consecutive year, the number will be greater than 2 million visitors." Many international visitors complain that Cuba is excessively expensive, especially because of a tax on required currency exchanges. Also at the fair, aviation officials announced plans to improve airports in Havana and four other cities. Heriberto Prieto, first vice president of Cuba's Civil Aviation Institute, said nearly a dozen new planes were being added to the island's passenger fleet. Tourism, which generates some $2 billion annually in Cuba, became a major source of income in the 1990s following the Soviet Union's collapse and the loss of critical aid and trade.
March 2007

Tourism is restoring the buildings of Old Havana

March 21, 2007

Miami Herald- Mike Williams

It's one of the hemisphere's architectural treasures, but in a country of scarce resources, saving the crumbling buildings of Old Havana might easily have been overlooked. Instead, Cuba has slowly but steadily restored some of the oldest -- and most gorgeous -- buildings in the Americas. The innovative plan has also funded social programs and housing reconstruction, making it a model for historic districts around the world, experts say. 'It's a self-financing, self-sustaining model,' said Herman Van Hooff, a United Nations cultural official based in Havana. ``It's an integrated vision of restoration and providing services to the population. It has matured into a model with valuable concepts for other places.' The unique part of Cuba's plan has been its strategy of restoring old hotels, restaurants and buildings to attract tourists and then using tourism revenue to fund more restoration, along with social programs and housing renovation, one of Cuba's most pressing problems. But the work hasn't been without its challenges. One of the biggest problems facing planners is also a main source of Old Havana's charm: The district's narrow streets are packed with people, with some 66,000 residents crammed into an area of less than 1.5 square miles. Water and sewer lines are in poor condition, and some buildings have already collapsed. On many streets, visitors see crumbling facades, leaning walls and teetering roofs propped up with wooden scaffolding. FAMILIES STAY But families continue living in even the most dilapidated buildings. Old men play dominoes on street corners, younger men tinker under the hoods of ancient cars and housewives hang wash from wrought-iron balconies, pausing to peer at the busy street life below. Small wonder that few of the residents want to leave. The district's charm -- and the opportunity to make money from the thousands of tourists strolling its streets -- are powerful attractions. Planners have responded by constructing new apartments in refurbished old buildings, allowing many families who want to stay in the district to remain. The pace is slow, but as the tourism infrastructure has expanded, more revenues are being channeled into social programs. While only 57 buildings were restored between 1981 and 1993, nearly 300 were refurbished between 1994 and 2004. Belkys Collaza is one resident who has moved out of a decaying building and into a spacious new apartment provided by the Cuban government at low cost. 'We couldn't be happier,' said Collaza, 39. ``In the old apartment we had seven people with two bedrooms and it was falling down. Here we have three bedrooms for four people, and best of all, we are still in Old Havana.' Havana's roots stretch back to the early 1500s, when its deep, protected harbor made it the perfect spot to assemble the famous treasure fleets that took New World gold and silver back to Spain. By 1750, the city was a thriving commercial and government center with striking buildings in the baroque and neo-classical styles. Expansion continued during the 1800s as Cuba became a rich sugar and tobacco colony. A LONG DECLINE But Old Havana -- the city's district next to its port -- began a long decline as the rich built mansions on the city's outskirts and new business districts cropped up. Restoration efforts date back to the 1930s, but the work was poorly funded. Even after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, Cuba's focus was on developing agriculture and raising living standards for the rural poor. Old Havana continued to deteriorate, despite the efforts of the Office of the Havana Historian. While the district was officially declared a protected national monument in 1978 and designated as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1982, only a few dozen buildings were restored in the 1980s. A new setback came in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for decades had provided billions in subsidies to Cuba. But Cuba turned to tourism to revive its economy, and Old Havana became a key part of the plan. Félix Alfonso, a Cuban historian involved in the project, admitted that Old Havana's complete restoration will take decades. But he's encouraged that the enterprise is financing itself and keeping the residents in the district they love. 'I think what makes the restoration unique is that it's an example not of gentrification, where the rich buy and restore buildings while the poor are moved out,' he said. ``Our historical center is remaining a place where people live and work.'.