ASTA group tours Cuba

By
|

resh from a six-day visit to Cuba and dinner with Fidel Castro, ASTA president Richard Copland praised the island as a future vacation destination and disclosed plans to roll out a Cuba destination specialist program at the next ASTA World Travel Congress.

In an interview with Travel Weekly, Copland called Castro "very personable."

Copland, his wife and two other ASTA officials -- treasurer Mary Louise Seifert and Bill Connors, staff senior vice president, meetings, education, and member services -- were invited to visit Cuba April 1 to 6 by the island's minister of tourism, Copland said. The Cuban government sponsored the trip.

They toured Havana, "which is a lovely city," Copland said, as well as some of the countryside.

He said he encountered poverty in Havana "and there are people who probably don't have many choices in their lives, but the city, in and of itself, was beautiful."

"The hotel accommodations were all five-star," he added. "We traveled around the country to a lot of different resorts that have all been built in the last few years. They were all excellent."

He said the ASTA delegation "had dinner with Fidel," a four-hour affair that also was attended by Cuban government officials and interpreters.

The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with Cuba and, for the past 43 years, has imposed a variety of sanctions against the Castro regime.

But Copland said ASTA's visit to Cuba underscores the Society's philosophy of promoting the rights of Americans to travel wherever they want, regardless of politics.

"ASTA, when it comes to travel, is not a political organization," he said. "We believe the American public should always have the right to travel freely anywhere in the world."

Copland acknowledged reports of human rights violations in Cuba, but said, "If we are going to make a determination as to where Americans can travel, why should they be allowed to go to China, which is a communist country? Why should they be allowed to travel to Vietnam? Why should they be allowed to travel to Northern Ireland? [ASTA has] traveled to all of these places as ambassadors of peace. We are totally out of it politically."

Copland continued, "We feel that one of these days, Cuba will become a travel destination. We feel one of our obligations for our members is to prepare them -- and just as I think we should have a destination specialist program on Antarctica, we feel it is appropriate to have one on Cuba.

"So we are going to announce a [Cuba] destination specialist program at the ASTA World Travel Congress in Hawaii [in November]."

But opening travel to Cuba may be easier said than done.

There is growing sentiment among certain members of Congress that some, if not all, of the sanctions and restrictions prohibiting travel to Cuba should be lifted.

However, an equally determined contingent, particularly led by the delegation from Florida, home to many Cuban exiles, advocates making the restrictions even tougher.

This summer, Congress may again grapple with the question of opening travel to Cuba.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a member of the House International Relations Committee, plans to introduce legislation this summer to lift trade and travel restrictions to allow Texas farmers to do business with Cuba.

But in the office of Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a longtime Castro foe, the reaction was blunt.

"Cuba is on the terrorist list," said Diaz-Balart's spokesman, "and after Sept. 11, travel agents are going to come out and encourage travel to a terrorist list country? I envy people who can so easily close their brains off to what's happening."

The spokesman dismissed the contention that opening U.S. travel to Cuba would spur democracy in communist-controlled Cuba.

"Travel to China over the past 25 years has not resulted in free elections, so that argument doesn't hold water," the spokesman said. "Cubans are literally dying to leave Cuba, while tourists are going there. We think it is incredible."

Trade reaction: Some see $$$, others see red

By Gay Nagle Myers

WASHINGTON -- Industry reaction to ASTA's Cuba visit ran the gamut from support of the trip, to caution that tough travel restrictions still remain, to alarm, outrage and dismay about the move.

Supporting the visit were several agents licensed as Travel Service Providers (TSP) to promote and organize legalized travel to Cuba within the guidelines set by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

At the same time, they cautioned that the current restrictions against travel by ordinary U.S. citizens are a fact of life until and if the travel and trade embargoes are lifted.

The ASTA visit received an endorsement from Peter R. Voll, head of Peter Voll Associates in Palo Alto, Calif.

As a licensed TSP, his company organizes and arranges legalized travel for educational institutions to Cuba and other destinations, including Myanmar, Indonesia and countries in the Middle East.

Although Voll said he respects the feelings of the Cuban-Americans who oppose travel to Cuba, "I think all efforts that encourage more Americans to visit Cuba are worth it.

"Travel is the best way to understand other peoples of the world, and this kind of knowledge is the best way for peace to work," Voll said.

Barbara Davis of Aries Travel, a retail agency in Montclair, N.J., supports the visit and ASTA's possible introduction of a destination specialist course to educate agents in selling Cuba.

"A lot of people have expressed an interest in visiting Cuba, so I see no harm in promoting it as a destination," said Davis.

"Right now a veil of mystery hangs over Cuba, and a lot of Americans find a way to get there despite restrictions. I think legalizing travel to Cuba is long overdue."

Agreeing with that viewpoint was Margaret Castagna, an outside sales agent with All Points Travel in Independence, Mo.

She said, "I support travel to Cuba, and I would like to know how to sell it when and if the embargo is lifted."

Transeair Travel in Washington, a licensed TSP, is running its first fam trip to Cuba next month.

Agents who are participating in the trip are first-time Cuba visitors, according to Benita Lubic, the firm's owner.

"There is high interest in Cuba," Lubic said. "I hope to run another fam trip in the fall because there is much to learn there."

But Jack R. Guiteras, president of Lorraine Travel Bureau in Miami, was "appalled, ashamed and flabbergasted" by ASTA's visit.

Guiteras, an ASTA member since 1948 when he and his wife opened an agency in Havana, threatened to cancel his ASTA membership.

Lorraine Travel reopened in Miami in 1960.

Guiteras said the "current regime in Cuba wiped out my peers. I cannot forget the travel agents who no longer exist in Cuba nor the violations of human rights that have been committed."

Who's permitted to visit?

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. has no direct diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Americans by law are prohibited from spending U.S. currency in the country or engaging in other transactions there.

However, certain individuals and preformed groups are allowed to visit Cuba, but they first must obtain a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Travelers who are permitted by license to visit Cuba include:

• U.S. and foreign government officials traveling on official business.

• Journalists and supporting broadcasting or technical personnel.

• Persons making an annual visit to close family relatives in circumstances of humanitarian need.

• Professionals engaged in research, or groups involved in educational, agricultural or humanitarian activities.

• Professionals attending meetings or conferences.

• Amateur or semiprofessional athletes or teams.

U.S. travel firms can be licensed to act as Travel Service Providers for eligible travelers.

Information is available on line at www.ustreas.gov/ofac/cubapage.html.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI