This week president Obama has taken the unusual initiative to make it clear to Raul Castro that, with some change in Cuba, he is willing to talk business.
Havanatur, Cuba´s largest operator is looking on wide eyed at the prospects of millions of Americans visiting Cuba should the travel restrictions. Already Havanatur has captured the US market with the so called “people to people” American visitors, essentially a method to visit Cuba under a license which requires visitors to maintain a strict schedule without a typical leisure schedule including beaches and sea. Basically, generalized tourism is still forbidden but, those who qualify are able to visit in groups which do anything from Salsa classes to photographic tours to hospital visits. All is good so long as there´s an education angle attached and there is plenty of contact with the Cuban people (hence the people (Cuban) to people accolade)
Many Americans are rushing to try and see Cuba now, a sort of forbidden fruit type visit which will intrigue friends and family. The typical “oh really you went to Cuba??” brigade. However, these Cuba people to people exchanges are not without drawback, first up is the price…One recent trip this December was advertised at over $2000 for 5 nights stay in Havana without flight! Yes, a $400 hotel stay and a few bus rides doled out to our unwitting fellow countrymen at a massive profit for the organizers. But, those takers who can afford it say they don´t regret it, offering explanations of being “first in” as the carrot for what is an incredibly inflated price. Those Americans who are traveling to Cuba anyway, those who visit on the so called “general license” which requires no paperwork, and you just go, are seeing the real Cuba also but paying $400 for their hotel rather than $2000. So what gives? Well, first off, those who are visiting without applying are doing so under the “general license” a vague category catering for people who must be academics of some sort. They must be carrying out research but this is so broad that basically anyone can go it seems. Starting a blog about Cuba and then going to obtain factual information for your blog would appear to be just fine, as it could be deemed as “research”? So are the options limitless…?
Havanatur managed to capture this nascent US market by forcing the hand of Cuba´s tourism ministry to ban local foreign operators from selling to Americans but, also, a little known 1963 US law called “trading with the enemy” preempted Cuba´s Tourism ministry anyway, because “trading with the enemy” levies massive fines on Americans who purchase travel services from what are deemed “nationals of Cuba” or more specifically those foreign or Cuban companies and travel agencies with an address and phone numbers on the island.
So what could Obama´s administration have in mind for Cuba? Well, almost certainly a broadening of the current travel rules to allow more Americans to visit Cuba, although, we think it’s a long shot that travel restrictions be completely lifted. Who knows? Obama won the latino vote and a big chunk are Cubans so maybe he feels convinced that change with Cuba could be a big plus historically for his presidency?
Forums we scoured to get the low down on Americans who have already visited Cuba offer contrasting views on their visits to the forbidden island. A great percentage vow that while the trip was intriguing, they wouldn´t probably return, a big blow for Cuba´s aspirations of American tourism as the backbone to repair its ailing economy. On the other hand, and especially with frequent visitors who are “going it alone” (general license) there appears to be a mystique that brings them back time and time again. We think Cuban tourism officials will be happy with this “happy medium” however.
Will Obama do it? Only time will tell.