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Tourism in Cuba | Jim Johnson

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So Near And Yet So Far

Rollins College
Dr. Jim Johnson is the Professor of International Business at Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business

The recent thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments and President Barack Obama’s ground-breaking visit to Havana in March this year have led to speculation that throngs of American tourists will soon swarm over the island, crowding the hotels, beaches and bars, and turning Havana into a sprawling strip mall.

There is no doubt that the impulse to visit Cuba before it changes beyond recognition has resulted in an upsurge in the number of foreign visitors to the island—over 3.5 million in 2015, an increase of over 17{bfd614f294d07c51b84c8dad33a56885001f0ed7300088ac66752d3246377d5a} from the previous year—and travel professionals have observed that Cuba’s tourism infrastructure is currently under great strain and cannot keep up with the increasing demand.

Despite the American economic embargo and sanctions, which have been fully in place since 1962, Cuba has been open to visitors from the rest of the world, with the majority coming from Canada, Europe and Latin America. Cuba has a lot to offer the vacationer—beautiful beaches, stunning colonial architecture, a rich history, and food and music that are world renowned, not to mention top-notch rum and cigars.

A Not So Open “Open Door”

If you fall into one of the allowed travel categories, you may visit Cuba as part of an organized group or as an individual—but open and independent travel is still off-limits. U.S. regulations require you to maintain a full schedule of daily activities linked to the category that allows you to travel, and you must keep records for at least five years of where you went, what you did, and who you met. Your records are subject to government audits to show that your travel met the official guidelines. Spending your time lounging on the beach or sipping a rum drink poolside is not permitted.

Commercial airline and ferry services are expected to commence from America to Cuba this summer, which will lead to a surge in U.S. visitors under one of these travel categories. But formidable barriers to mass tourism in Cuba are likely to remain for several years—at least until power passes from the Castro-era generation to the younger generation.

Deteriorating Infrastructure

The infrastructure facilities at Cuba’s main airports are antiquated and require significant investments that the government cannot afford.

A shortage of hotel rooms is likely to peak this summer. While a 1995 law (in theory) allowed 100{bfd614f294d07c51b84c8dad33a56885001f0ed7300088ac66752d3246377d5a} foreign ownership of businesses, in practice foreign hoteliers must form a joint venture with the Cuban government, which has been slow to approve foreign investment projects.

American-based hotel firms are lining up to move into Cuba, but they are late-comers to the market and are at a disadvantage compared with European and Latin American chains that have operated there for decades and know how to navigate through the bureaucracy.

On the bright side, local entrepreneurs have begun to fill the gap by renting out government-approved private homes called “casas particulares” through agents such as Airbnb, which now offers over 4,000 properties in Cuba, and by opening small private restaurants, “paladares”, often in their own home. However, these entrepreneurial ventures are more likely to appeal to seasoned, independent travelers than to the mass market.

There are clearly opportunities for Central Florida firms in the travel industry to prepare for the opening of free travel by Americans to Cuba in the coming years. Cruise lines operating from US ports may now travel to Cuba but passengers must still fall into one of the twelve categories permitted by the U.S. State Department.

In the meantime, organizing specialist group travel and tours for those who qualify in one of the permitted categories—especially “people to people” tours and visits for humanitarian purposes—will facilitate visits by individuals and provide U.S. travel agents with valuable experience of doing business in Cuba.

Travelers may visit Cuba, provided the purpose of travel is:

  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government and other government agencies
  • Journalism
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competition, and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  • Certain authorized export transactions

 

 

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