Long favored by holidaymakers from Canada, Europe and Latin America, Cuba is set to be the new travel destination for U.S. residents. The change comes in the wake of the announcement from the Obama administration vowing to normalize relations with its neighbor, with whom it has been at odds for almost six decades. In recent travel surveys, the island nation features as one of the top destinations on travel bucket lists.
Individual tourist travel has so far been banned, as it is designated a “repressive authoritarian state.” A handful of authorized travel agencies have been conducting educational and group travel for some time. However, one of 12 licenses is currently necessary, which requires jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
While awaiting congressional approval for lifting the ban outright, the administration plans to ease the licensing procedures. Travel will be easier for those falling under one of the 12 approved non-tourism categories. These exception groups include Cubans, Cuban-Americans, educational programs , humanitarian organizations and those with special political interests. They will be able to make travel arrangements through any organization that meets the approval of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Practical concerns still exist. There are no direct U.S. carriers flying there, so air tickets are expensive. So is chartering a plane. The hotel and transportation industries are not geared up for an influx of tourists. Cuba also does not accept American health insurance plans. U.S. citizens have not been able use credit cards or ATMs. The U.S. dollar is banned, so all cash has to be converted into pesos.
Although Cuba is projected to be the next new travel destination, there are concerns about an influx of Americans bringing tourism and commerce. Some are afraid that will impact the nature preserves, the beaches and heritage of historic old Havana.
The country’s tourism business attracts 3 million visitors per year. Small businesses have sprung up in recent years. Private restaurants serve excellent food. There are even some fine hotels with modern amenities. More investments have to be made in this still developing nation to support this level of tourism. It is poor with an old infrastructure but shows definite signs of modernization.
A one week package tour is priced anywhere from $2500 to $5000 per person, including hotel, meals and transportation from Miami. A Cuban tour guide accompanies the group throughout. There are restrictions on movement and sightseeing, which is controlled by the government.
Individual Americans will soon be able to enjoy ease of travel. Travelers will be able to use credit and debit cards. They will be able to legally bring back controlled amounts of cigars or rum.
Travel agents like Jon Sutter of Landings Travel in Sarasota, have reported a significant uptick of interest in Cuba as the new travel destination for Americans. Airlines, tour operators, luxury hotels, and cruise lines are expected to start making investments and expand into the country. In time, Cuba could become a typical Caribbean resort.
A half million U.S. citizens visited Cuba legally last year. An unknown number travel there from Mexico or Canada, as they do not have an embargo. The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) forecasts the number will rise to 2 million by 2017.
Cuba, soon to be the favored new travel destination for Americans, sports a romantic, old-world aura. The long-standing allure it has had will soon be experienced in reality. Joe Diaz of AFAR magazine says that although only 90 miles from the U.S. Cuba has always generated intrigue among travelers.
By Bina Joseph
Photo by Kees de Vos – Flickr License