CANCUN, Mexico -- Cuba, once the hottest playground in the
Caribbean, could be on its way to reclaiming that title among
foreign (non-U.S.) visitors, whose numbers jumped 15%, to 1.3
million, from January through August.
According to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, in fact, the
year-end figure could exceed 1.9 million.
Add to that what the ministry calls a pent-up demand from U.S.
visitors after four decades of restrictions, and Cuba's tourism
industry seems ready to bust wide open in terms of an enormous
influx of visitors.
In fact, Miguel Figueras, senior advisor to the tourism
ministry, estimated that U.S. figures could reach 3 million
visitors within five years, once barriers to travel are
U.S. travel professionals, who attended the first U.S.-Cuba
Travel Conference here, sponsored by the Washington-based
Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (Atrip),
"Demand will be huge," said Bob Whitley, president of the U.S.
Tour Operators Association. Whitley supports the right to travel to
any destination "as long as it's a safe destination."
Conference participants included 100 U.S. tour operators, travel
agents, association heads, cruise lines, legal firms, Cuban tourism
officials and hotel companies doing business in Cuba.
The meeting was convened by Atrip in response to what it says is
a growing demand in the U.S. to lift the prohibitions on travel to
Cuba, considered by participants to be a violation of their
constitutional rights of free movement.
Atrip president Michael Zuccato said, "It's not a question of
whether the ban will be lifted, only a question of when."
Bradley Belt, Atrip's executive director, said his group "will
help shape the policy debate in Washington. ... ASTA, the
USTOA and the National Tour Association already are members, but
we need to broaden our travel industry representation to be most
The Cancun conference followed passage of an appropriations
measure in the House that would block the Treasury Department from
enforcing a ban on most U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba.
The Senate approved the measure last week.
President Bush may veto the provision, although that would hold
up the budgets for the Treasury and Transportation departments.
Ibrahim Ferradaz, Cuba's minister of tourism, pointed out that
Cuba's tourism development "coincides with the most difficult times
in the Cuban economy," a reference to the end of Russian support a
"We need peace, recovery of our economies, the international
movement of visitors and communications between cultures," Ferradaz
In its quest for more visitors, Cuba seeks the "development of
new markets and relationships with new overseas tour operators," he
Travel agent Vivian Russell with Vivian V. Russell Travel in
Santa Rosa, Calif., said she attended the conference "to learn more
about Cuba. I want to send people if I can legally do so."
U.S. travel companies, cruise lines, tour operators and airlines
already have contacted Cuban authorities regarding future business
"These contacts have allowed us to know how much information
businessmen lack regarding Cuban development and society," Ferradaz
"They also help us plan joint programs we can develop for future
Ferradaz said there are 16 foreign hotel firms in Cuba,
representing 40,000 hotel rooms; most of the firms are in joint
ventures with Cuba. "Many of these hotels, especially the beach
resorts, are built with the U.S. market in mind, in terms of
facilities, styles and amenities," he said.
Another 1,700 rooms will open by year's end.
Cuba's growing tourist industry accounts for 40% of its
foreign-trade income, Ferradaz said.
Most visitors are from Canada and Europe, but the island is
"ready for a U.S. invasion of tourists."
"The past must be a point of reference but must not guide our
future," he said.
Close to 180,000 U.S. residents and citizens visited Cuba last
year on religious, humanitarian, educational and people-to-people
Most of the educational programs operate with cultural exchange
licenses from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets
Control, but the Bush administration wants to further restrict
travel, and these licenses will not be renewed when they expire in
As a result, organizations are scrambling to redesign tours that
qualify under more-restrictive licensing categories.
To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].