Freer US Travel to Cuba poses a Challenge – By David Jessop

Freer US Travel to Cuba poses a Challenge

Published on Aug 27 2015 – By David Jessop

cuba

Havana – Cuba

News Americas, LONDON, England, Fri. Aug. 28, 2015: According to the North American trade publication, Travel Weekly, US tourism to Cuba is now growing at such pace that the country is experiencing a shortage of both highly trained Cuban professional guides and non-Cuban certified tour directors to accompany the tours that US Treasury regulations require almost all US visitors to take.

It is just one indication of a situation that as this year goes on may change, if as seems likely the US Administration allows its citizens to travel to Cuba on an individual basis. 

At present it is only possible for most US passport holders to visit Cuba for one of twelve specified purposes through a tour operator holding a general license. However, a new approach being considered by the Obama administration, when taken with two other developments, could all but free US travel to Cuba by the end of this in what will almost certainly effect US visitor arrivals elsewhere in the region.

It has been clear for some time now that the US administration has been preparing to ease the procedures that restrict individual travel to Cuba, but in the last two weeks US officials have confirmed that the President is considering changes by executive order that would allow US citizens to book tickets for travel to Cuba by simply attesting on-line or at an airport, as they buy a ticket, to compliance with the US Treasury licensing rules.

The development coincides with separate negotiations between the US Federal Aviation Administration and their Cuban counterparts to develop a new bilateral air services agreement. This is expected to the lead to the resumption of scheduled commercial flights by major US and Cuban carriers, possibly as early as the end of this year.

In addition, the US Treasury is considering removing remaining impediments to the use of US credit cards in Cuba so as to overcome US banks legal and practical caution about acting on previous permissions. Such regulatory changes will also facilitate the establishment of correspondent banking arrangements in Cuba.

The new policy may also be extended to licensing individual travel on US based ferries and cruise ships that will start sailing to Cuba early next spring.

Although the US government’s intention is that people-to-people contact will bring about a change in thinking and attitudes in Cuba, the most likely immediate practical outcome will be the near to full liberalization of US travel to Cuba.

All of which suggests that from the latter part of this year on, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cayman, Cancun and the Dominican Republic may begin to feel the impact, and then later, if US cruise visitor regulations are eased, other regional destinations may see ships withdrawn as they begin to sail around Cuba.

According to Cuban reports, the number of US visitors it received increased by 36 per cent in the first five months of 2015. More generally, Cuba has already become according to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation the second most popular tourism destination in the region after the Dominican Republic, with the arrivals gap between the two narrowing. Cuba itself believes that it will become a strong regional competitor if the US market fully opens with the country first at risk the region being Puerto Rico.

The conundrum for the rest of the region is how best to respond.

At its most obvious this involves Northern Caribbean nations actively pursuing with tour operators two centre holidays and finding ways to improve air services and encourage cross destination investment and branding by regional and international hotel groups. It also involves placing much greater emphasis in each country on service, quality, cuisine and training so as to ensure that the experience in the rest of the region remains one step ahead of Cuba’s largely mid to low-end and weak repeat-business offering, as well as in continuing to diversify visitor feeder markets as rapidly as possible.

For the longer term urgent government attention is needed to be aid to the thoughtful recommendations in the recently produced Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association (CHTA) paper ‘Cuba: the great disruption for the good of the Caribbean.’

This asks how much of the US$3 billion per annum in future new business Cuba expects to earn from an opening to the US will be at the rest of the region’s expense and argues for collaboration with Cuba in every aspect of tourism. It also calls for a new tourism development agenda involving high level discussions with the Cuban authorities and industry, and for a ‘US Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative’ that supports the development through tourism of a ‘economically viable, safe and stable Caribbean.’

Most expect President Obama to all but free travel to Cuba later this year. If the effect is to divert US visitors, it will demonstrate what the industry has been saying about the danger of governments not taking seriously enough developing policies that recognize tourism’s economic centrality to the region’s economic fortunes.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted atdavid.jessop@caribbean-council.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org

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Cuba prepares for expanded USA tourism – commentary

Ivet Gonzalez – for Caribbean360

Cuba-2

El ABRA, Cuba, Tuesday August 25, 2015, IPS – Along the road to the Viñales valley, travelled by thousands of tourists to Cuba, lies the home of self-taught artist Miguel Antonio Remedios, which he has turned into a sort of museum to show visitors a wooden home typical of this mountainous area in the west of the country.

“It would be a big help if (state tour operators) included this project on the tourist routes,” the 47-year-old painter told IPS in his home, which doubles as a gallery, where he has his studio and has launched the initiative “Remedios del Abra”.

His project and similar initiatives are overcoming hurdles to tap into the tourism boom in this socialist island nation, which has become fashionable since the thaw with the United States.

The U.S. government put new rules in place in January making it easier for people from that country to visit Cuba, expanding the list of categories of authorized travel to 12, including visits for educational, religious, cultural, journalistic, humanitarian or family purposes.

After that, in the first half of the year, 88,900 visitors came from the United States – 54 per cent more than in the first half of 2014. In that period, the number of foreign tourists totaled 1,136,948, which would indicate an increase from last year’s total by year-end, when the number of visitors climbs.

Viñales valley and El Abra, a mountain village in the municipality of La Palma, are places of spectacular scenery in the hills of Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Río.

Offering bird-watching, hiking, and striking landscapes of mogotes or tall, dome-like limestone hills that rise abruptly from the flat plain of the valley, the province draws part of the three million foreign tourists who visit Cuba every year.

Remedios’ home is a traditional western Cuban wooden house with a palm-frond thatched roof. Above the wide gate hangs an ox yoke. In the main room inside is a long, rustic table lined with benches, a clay pitcher with fresh water, and a wood stove. The bedrooms are furnished with beds with wire mesh.

Paintings by the artist, who is registered with the government’s Cultural Goods Fund – a requirement to be able to sell his art – hang on the walls, waiting for buyers.

With the sales of his art works, which are painted in a naive style, Remedios fixed up his museum-home, where he was born and grew up, and bought the materials needed to give free painting classes to local children. He began his project in 2013. He accepts small voluntary donations from visitors.

He says that “to revive peasant traditions and promote local painters” he would like to have more support from the local authorities, in order to build a classroom, an exhibition room and a ranchón or open-walled thatch-roofed structure to hold traditional rural fiestas or festive gatherings on weekends.

“The development of tourist attractions other than sun and beach will depend above all on the efforts made by the provinces, and how they use their own resources and capacities,” Professor Ricardo Jorge Machado, who was an adviser on tourism to the Council of Ministers between 1980 and 1993, told IPS.

The expert advises local governments not to wait for financing from the tourism ministry but to undertake their own initiatives in conjunction with the private sector and with cooperatives, using their own funds made available by the current economic decentralisation process.

In its plan for the period up to 2030, the Tourism Ministry has prioritised 100 sun-and-beach projects and only two ecological tourism initiatives.

Tourism is Cuba’s second-biggest source of revenue, after the export of professional services. In 2014 tourism brought in more than US$2.7 billion.

The government’s strategy appears to focus on beach resorts and high-end tourism, with the construction of controversial golf courses and the boom in cruise ship traffic, which has risen nearly two-fold from last year, according to the Transport Ministry.

For the first time, the tourism authorities recognize the country’s growing private businesses and cooperatives as indispensable partners, while they attempt to capture foreign investment.

Up to now, the best-promoted tourism areas are the capital, the beach resort of Varadero, 140 km east of Havana, and the keys to the north of the main island.

The Cuban archipelago consists of the main island and 4,195 small islands and keys, where nature is exuberant.

Even in the capital, Machado estimates that there are 90 strong tourist attractions but says that only 12 are exploited, like the El Floridita bar, where U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was a habitué, the La Bodeguita del Medio restaurant, and the Tropicana cabaret.

“Cuba should do more to vary its tourism products, putting an emphasis on elements of its public image that strengthen credibility: its health system and the safety of the country,” said the analyst. In his view, “more specialized forms of tourism, such as long-stay and health tourism, associated with older adults, should be a priority.”

He pointed out that competitors in the region, like Mexico and Colombia, are getting involved in medical tourism – including doctors trained in Cuba – but this country could offer even lower costs.

One million people from the United States travel abroad for health tourism every year.

Alternatives of this kind could generate opportunities in different parts of Cuba, because there are skilled healthcare professionals throughout the country, he said.

“It’s obvious that more and more visitors are arriving,” said Reina Ramos, a schoolteacher, walking down an avenue in central Havana, who pointed to the large numbers of tourists riding about the city in classic cars or convertibles now painted in bright colours – pink, purple or yellow – and serving as taxis.

If the U.S. Congress removes the restrictions on travelling to Cuba in the near future, as lawmakers are currently debating in Washington, the influx of visitors would set new records for the local tourism industry, posing the risk of collapse for the country’s hotels and other services.

In the meantime, villages and towns off the beaten track, with stunning landscapes or colonial-era architecture, have set their sights on tourism, but are facing difficulties creating lodgings, networks of services and even roads that would make it possible for them to share the benefits of the tourism boom.

With its cobblestone streets, spacious plazas and colonial-era houses, the historic centre of the city of Camagüey in central Cuba is drawing up its own plans for increasing the number of visitors.

“The idea is for tourists to come here as part of a circuit of colonial-era cities, similar to the one already offered by the Havana City Historian’s Office,” Camagüey city historian José Rodríguez told IPS.

He said the offices aimed at preserving the country’s heritage are designing a tour that would take visitors to Old Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spíritus, Bayamo and Camagüey, whose historic centre was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site in 2008.

The Camagüey office is developing a list of high-quality tourist offerings, ranging from small charming hotels to a thriving nightlife, with a variety of cultural options for tourists and the 300,000 inhabitants of the country’s third-largest city.

Source: http://www.caribbean360.com/news/alternative-destinations-emerge

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Comments

  • de castro  On August 30, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Cuba s pop 10m
    USA pop 360m

    Tourists over 3m a year no problem.
    1.5m usa 1.5m elsewhere.

    10m Americans a year raises more questions than answers.

    Poco poco por favour.

    100% USD 💲 influence ?

    It will destroy cuba culturally.

    Glad to know that this mass influx is “regulated” by both governments.

    Hate cuba to return to days of Batista……

    Interesting changes in store.

    Wait an see how this develops.

    Economic wealth has other draw backs.
    Sceptic
    Kamtan

  • albert  On August 30, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Changes always bring some new problems. The worst thing is to sit and do nothing and expect a better tomorrow. Cubans are smart people and I dont think they will let the Baptista days return. The old ones in Miami are dying out and new ideas are dawning.
    I expect to visit there next year on one of the cruise line and hope to enjoy it.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On August 30, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Cuba’s opening will definitely have impacts upon the Caribbean tourism industry. If they have not already done so, CARICOM has to address this development.

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