Posted on Wednesday, 12.16.09
Cuban officials try to sell U.S. travel operators on tourism
By LESLEY CLARK
WASHINGTON — Major U.S. travel operators gathered in a downtown
Washington hotel Wednesday to listen to a pitch for business from Cuban
government officials, who appeared on a giant screen via the Internet
from Havana to tout the island.
The meeting – which one of its organizers said was a first – came as
travel companies eagerly eye congressional efforts to lift the
restrictions that prohibit most Americans from traveling to Cuba.
The operators watched promotional videos of tourists frolicking in the
surf, lounging on sugar-white beaches and exploring old Havana. They
asked Cuban officials when they would be ready for what the president of
the U.S. Tour Operators Association, Bob Whitley, called a "mass rush"
of American tourists, should the ban be scrapped. Whitley's group
sponsored the event along with the National Tour Association.
"We are ready the first minute," Miguel Figueras Perez, a senior adviser
to Cuba's Ministry of Tourism, told the group. "Let us know, please."
Figueras provided a travelogue for the operators, pointing out the
Floridita restaurant, the "place where Ernest Hemingway preferred to
have his mojitos," and telling them tourists in Cuba could "rent a car,
you can go anyplace you wish."
He said Cuba was safe, that there were "no drugs, no vices, no crimes
against tourists" and that "no one is crazy to kidnap a bus with tourists."
The event came as Cuba has refused to give the State Department access
to an American contractor who was detained in Havana on Dec. 5 after
handing out cell phones and laptops to Cuban dissidents.
Kirby Jones of Alamar Associates, a Washington group that backs trade
with Cuba, said he didn't expect the incident to affect efforts to ease
the travel ban.
"There's always political issues and there always will be, but work goes
on," Jones said.
Supporters of the travel ban contend lifting it would only further
enrich and entrench the Castro government, which controls most aspects
of Cuba's tourism sector.
Jones asked the Cuban officials about complaints from some supporters of
the travel ban that Cubans on the island aren't allowed to stay in
hotels there. Figueras said it wasn't true.
He said Cuba had built more than 100 hotels in the last two decades, as
tourist arrivals jumped 11 percent each year. He noted, however, it took
the island 30 years to get back to the volume it had enjoyed before the
Eisenhower administration broke off relations with Cuba in 1961.
Figueras said Cuba was looking to build 30 more hotels with 10,000 rooms
over the next five years, but he acknowledged it needs more golf courses.
He said the country estimated that since 1961, the travel ban had
prevented 30 million Americans from visiting Cuba, at a price tag of $20
billion. He quoted congressional testimony from the American Society of
Travel Agents to estimate that 1.8 million Americans would visit Cuba if
the restrictions were lifted. He said it could mean more than $1 billion
for U.S. airlines, tour operators and travel agencies.
Whitley, who said his group passed a resolution in 1981 that advocated
"open borders," said American tourists were eager to travel to Cuba.
"Americans want to see Cuba. They really, really want to see it," he
said. "Every cruise ship that leaves Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the
market is going to demand a port of call include Havana."
Cuban officials try to sell U.S. travel operators on tourism – Outdoors
Wire – MiamiHerald.com (16 December 2009)