Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Group that backs freedom of travel to Cuba seeks support for changes

Orlando Sentinel

The Travel Industry Committee on Cuba calls for an end to restrictions at a gathering in Orlando.

HAVANA -- U.S. law blocks most travel to communist-led Cuba, but the Caribbean nation is represented at an international travel show in Orlando.

A U.S.-based group known as the Travel Industry Committee on Cuba is promoting travel and business links with the neighboring island at a convention spearheaded by the American Society of Travel Agents, the world's biggest travel-agent group.

John McAuliff, coordinator of the Travel Industry Committee on Cuba, said by telephone Friday that his group wants Washington to lift its 40-year-old restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, just as it liberalized U.S. food sales to Cuba. The move would open new business opportunities for U.S. travel companies.

For example, Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is buying Spain's cruise operator Pullmantur S.A. for more than $500 million to expand in Latin America and Europe, but it must end Pullmantur cruises to Cuba to comply with U.S. restrictions on business with the island.

The Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents long has backed freedom of travel to Cuba and elsewhere as a basic human right.

"ASTA has always supported open access to all destinations," the group said in response to an e-mail query. "Travel leads to understanding and communication, and peace."

The Bush administration, in contrast, has been tightening restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit only once every three years and clamping down on trips by U.S. academics. Officials say the restrictions aim to limit the flow of dollars to the communist government and hasten democracy in the Caribbean's most-populous nation.

McAuliff said he hopes his group's booth and reception in Orlando will help mobilize more travel agents to join the still nascent Travel Industry Committee and advocate for travel to Cuba.

"We've isolated ourselves with our policy toward Cuba," said McAuliff, a former Peace Corps volunteer, active for 21 years with a New York-based nonprofit group called Fund for Reconciliation and Development that initially pushed for exchanges with Vietnam and Cambodia and took groups there.

The trade show, which wraps up today, comes as Cuba forecasts record tourism this year -- 2.5 million visitors, up about 8 percent from last year and more than triple the tally a decade ago. Still, that's only about the same number as visit Jamaica, a nation with one-fifth Cuba's population.

Most visitors to Cuba come from Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain and Mexico because of Washington's travel restrictions. The United States is the top source of travelers to the Caribbean overall, accounting for about 70 percent of arrivals in Jamaica, for instance, regional statistics show.

Cuba began opening to limited tourism in the 1980s and embraced the industry in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union meant an end to an estimated $6 billion a year in Soviet subsidies to the island. Havana viewed tourism as a quick way to gain needed dollars and euros without too much investment, and invited foreign companies to help manage new resorts.

The initial focus was low-cost packages offering sun, sand, sea, rum and fun, all-inclusive vacations that often cost $1,000 to $1,500 per person per week from Canada or Europe, industry experts said.

But in the past few years, as Havana's cash crunch has eased with help from Venezuelan oil subsidies and Chinese trade credits, the communist government has cooled its tourism push. The government has increased prices at most tourist hotels and restaurants, cracked down on Cubans renting rooms to visitors, and, last year, issued new rules to limit tourism workers from socializing with foreigners.

Cuba's government is sure to enjoy the publicity generated by the Orlando trade show, said John Kavulich, a senior adviser to the U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group that studies business and other trends on the island.

"Anytime Cuba can potentially insert themselves into the U.S. political discourse, they will," Kavulich said. "They don't like to be ignored."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

No comments: