Cuba rep: Don't expect travel ban to be lifted

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MADRID -- Restrictions on travel to Cuba will be loosened under the Bush administration when it snows in Havana.

Such pessimism was expressed by tourism official Juan Hernandez Mendex, commercial director for the Cuban Ministry of Tourism, at the Fitur international travel trade show.

In an interview with Travel Weekly, Mendex said, "The Florida Cubans were critical in getting Bush elected. So there is no way he is going to betray them by supporting any softening of the ban against travel to Cuba."

The recently introduced Senate bill that would ease the 40-year-old travel and trade restrictions "doesn't have a chance," he continued.

"In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw increased harshness on Americans who travel to Cuba."

Mendex said it was impossible to know how many American tourists come to Cuba each year by thwarting U.S. law and traveling there via Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

"But we think it's probably more than the 22,000 people estimated by your State Department," he noted.

Mendex expressed concern that if the Cuban ministry came up with exact figures for American arrivals, the U.S. would crack down on those Americans who find a way around the ban.

In fact, his worry about the State Department's objections was repeated several times during the interview.

For instance, Mendex acknowledged that many U.S. hotel chains had "indirectly" expressed interest in Cuba but said, "I cannot admit to you that we are having any conversations, because then everyone would get in a lot of trouble."

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At the popular and festive Cuba booth here, Mendex acknowledged that he and his colleagues find the image that some Americans have of Cuba -- exotic and undeveloped -- to be quite entertaining.

He pointed out that Cuba received 1.8 million international visitors in 2000, a 12% increase over 1999. By comparison, Jamaica's visitors topped 2.2 million last year, a 5.6% increase over 1999.

Cuban officials predict that demand will increase, and international investment already has been obtained for the creation of 56,000 hotel rooms in three coastal regions over the next 10 years.

According to Mendex, Cuba has 196 hotels (36,000 rooms), 40% of them four stars, 10% five stars and 35% three stars. International chains with a Cuban presence include Sol Melia (20 hotels), Accor (eight hotels) and Club Med (one hotel with another to open in 2001).

Cuba has an annual average occupancy of 64%, reported Mendex. Cuba already is in "heated" competition for international sun seekers, Mendex said.

He estimated that the average room price in Cuba, offered through tour operators in their home markets, is $75 to $90 per person, double.

"This makes us competitive with the Dominican Republic, Cancun [Mexico] and Miami, which often gets the business because [Miami is] actually cheaper."

Mendex said he did expect an onslaught of Americans "someday," when the travel ban is lifted, "because people always want what they are not supposed to have.

"Based on conversations we do have with Americans, we can tell that this is their attitude toward traveling to Cuba," he said.

And who is going to Cuba?

Canada, Germany, Italy and Spain are the island's top markets, with Canada supplying 18% of Cuba's international arrivals. France, the U.K. and Mexico also lead the way among countries with a heavy travel pattern to Cuba.

Cuba relies heavily on tour operators for its arrivals and has virtually no cruise business because "cruising is dominated by lines that carry Americans, and they can't come here," Mendex said.

Last fall, a series of twice-weekly cruises from the Bahamas to Cuba, operated by Canadian tour operator Cuba Cruise Corp., was canceled due to bomb threats. The cruises had attracted many Americans.

Mendex attributed the threats to "the Cuban mafia in Miami."

Nonetheless, he said, Cuba is working to attract other small cruise operators.

One line that calls at Cuban Ports is West Indies Cruises, sailing out of Montego Bay, Jamaica, every Friday on the 251-cabin Valtur Prima, which serves the European market. Port calls include Havana and the Isle of Youth in Cuba as well as Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, and Calika, Mexico, on the Mayan Riviera.

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers contributed to this report.

Development to move away from country's capital

MADRID -- Cuba has targeted three areas for tourism development over the next decade, now that its two best-known resorts, Cayo Coco and Varadero, are showing record occupancies, according to Mendex.

Mendex said development would get farther away from the capital city of Havana, where most resorts are located.

He said some 24,000 rooms are scheduled to open in the next decade along the Jardines del Rey (Gardens of the King) island chain off the northeast coast. Some of the new properties would be operated by two major Spanish chains, Riu and Sol Melia.

Other plans call for 15,000 to 25,000 rooms north of Holguin along the southeast coast, and 6,000 rooms are under development in the southwest on the island of Cayo Larga.

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