TheTradeShow delegates are urged to help end Cuba embargo

By Nadine Godwin

LAS VEGAS -- Tony Martinez, a consultant on U.S.-Cuba policy issues, called on members of the U.S. travel industry to get involved with ending the Cuba travel embargo, saying that "pro-embargo politics blocks you and your industry."

Besides, he told delegates to TheTradeShow here last week, the embargo policy is a failure and "has changed nothing."

The embargo policy, which President Obama extended last week, stays in place, Martinez said, because "it is about money." He said a group of 5,000 Cuban-Americans spending about $1 million during congressional elections every two years "have had a great impact." They have kept Congress at bay despite the fact the majority of Americans and even the majority of Cuban-Americans want the embargo lifted, he said.

Martinez was one of several speakers at TheTradeShow session titled "Cuba: Breakthrough Opportunities for the U.S. Travel Industry."

He is also a senior foreign policy adviser to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, but he said he was not participating inTheTradeShow in an official capacity and his remarks reflected his own opinions.

Even so, he reported on Richardson's August trade mission to Cuba where he met with officials at the Ministry of Tourism. (A trade mission was possible because it is legal to export food and agricultural products to Cuba.) The tourism officials made it clear they were "eager to work with American businesses" to prepare for and receive U.S. tourists, Martinez said.

He listed for TheTradeShow delegates the ways they can be involved:

  • Get the newest regulations (updated because of new rules allowing Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba at will), and "get your business mind working" on the travel that can be done legally now.
  • Become a travel service provider, which is a license to sell Cuba travel, and promote legal travel to Cuba.
  • Discuss the matter with your representatives in Congress.
  • See Cuba for yourself, and get your congressional representatives to visit as well.
  • Make a contribution to an organization that is campaigning to end the embargo.

"Look at current politics and how politicians are raising large sums from small contributions," he said. "If all supporters [of eliminating the embargo] gave $10 each, that would be enough."

Martinez said money could be given to a group like the U.S.-Cuba Political Action Committee, but there are others as well.

John McAuliff, coordinator of the Travel Industry Network on Cuba, added his own suggestions:

  • Sign the petition, created by Orbitz, to end the embargo. He said there were close to 100,000 signatures already.
  • Take the message to the White House, urging Obama to license all nontourist travel to Cuba. That is as far as the president can go, he said, adding that only Congress can end the ban on ordinary tourism to Cuba. Bills to lift the embargo are pending in both houses.

During TheTradeShow session moderated by U.S. Tour Operator Association President Bob Whitley, speakers also provided information on Cuban tourism today.

Christopher Baker, travel writer and author of six books about Cuba, said there was speculation that 1 million Americans would visit Cuba in the first year after the end of an embargo, and 2 million to 3 million would visit annually after that.

But "tourism to Cuba already is huge," Baker said, with 2.3 million visitors last year. Three-quarters of hotels are inclusives concentrated in three beach areas. A quarter of the hotel stock is managed by Sol Melia, Baker said, but all hotels are government-owned.

He said he did worry about the change that might be wrought when the doors are opened from the U.S., but he still supported open doors "for obvious reasons."

"So much about Cuba is nostalgia," he said.

Andrea Holbrook, president of Holbrook Travel in Gainesville, Fla., said there was "almost the sense of a long-lost cousin" when visiting Cuba.

Her agency has a license to sell Cuba, which she described as a safe destination that because of the pent-up demand is "a recession-buster."

Holbrook said there were several travel companies in Cuba, all government-owned, and three were assigned to work with the U.S. travel sellers.

Cuba has a tiered pricing system, which means prices are higher for some nationalities, and the U.S. is in the top tier. Still, Holbrook said, it is an "affordable" destination.

Arranging air is a challenge. Either the licensed seller arranges charters or advises clients to travel via third countries, she said.

There are no ATMs in Cuba, and credit cards issued by U.S. banks cannot be used.

Holbrook said she asked a local cab driver if he thought it would be better for the U.S. to open the door for tourism gradually rather than all at once.

She said his response was, "Let them come. We need the income."

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