Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Efforts in the U.S. to end the 46-year-old travel ban to Cuba have gained momentum in recent months on the heels of last spring's easing of restrictions on family travel for Cuban Americans by President Obama and the introduction of legislation to open up travel to Cuba.

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (H.R. 874) was introduced by Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) Feb. 4 and has 179 co-sponsors in the House. It was introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) Feb. 12 as S.428 and has 33 co-sponsors in the Senate.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs was scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Nov. 19, the first such hearing since Democrats took control of Congress in 2007.

Orbitz Worldwide, which launched its Open Cuba campaign in May, has gathered 100,000 signatures, beating its own timeline by six months, according to Orbitz spokesman Brian Hoyt.

Hoyt said Open Cuba "began as a grassroots effort by Orbitz to give Americans the opportunity to travel to Cuba. Several factors converged simultaneously: We reached out to our industry partners and associations. They, in turn, reached out to their members. The 100,000 petitioners are sending a powerful message to U.S. lawmakers and to President Obama that the time to act is now."

Corporate and nongovernmental organizations and trade associations from within and outside the travel industry endorsed the drive.

They include the National Foreign Trade Council, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, the National Tour Association, the U.S. Tour Operators Association, the Interactive Travel Services Association and the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Several Cuban American groups signed on, as well, including the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights and the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Public Action Committee, a group that champions the U.S. embargo, reported that 53 Democrats in the House of Representatives still support current U.S. policy toward Cuba, including keeping the trade embargo and travel restrictions in place.

While momentum builds for lifting the embargo, the U.S. lodging industry remains on the sidelines, champing at the bit while watching foreign hotel firms move in to develop Cuba's beaches and bulkheads. The Spanish-based Sol Melia chain currently operates 24 properties in Cuba; Spain is a major source market for the Cuban tourism industry.

If the travel restrictions were lifted while the trade embargo remained in place, U.S. hotel companies still would be banned from booking clients to Cuba or building hotels there, according to a Bloomberg report.

Repealing the travel ban could lead to a reconsideration of lifting the trade embargo, which would then open the floodgates to U.S. hoteliers eager to plant their flags on Cuban soil.

Either way, development of Cuba's tourism and hospitality infrastructure could draw tourists away from other Caribbean resorts operated by U.S. companies.

However, there may be enough business to go around for all concerned, at least for now.

"There's no infrastructure in place in Cuba to support cruise lines, hotels, rental car companies, chain restaurants and airlift," said John S. Kavulich Jr., senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "There are a lot of hurdles to overcome."

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