At the Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago, US President Barack Obama directed his administration to allow unlimited travel and money transfers by Cuban Americans to family in Cuba. About 1.5 million Americans have relatives on the island nation that turned to communist rule in 1959 when Fidel Castro seized control. Obama’s move finally cancels the visitation limit imposed by President Bush in 2004, and predecessors, of a single two-week trip every three years for reunions with immediate family. He has also pledged bilateral negotiations without preconditions in which travel is likely to be an early issue.
However, the privilege is limited. Only Cuban-Americans will be allowed to travel.
The sector catering to Cuban travel industry showed mixed reactions while the administration has not made any concrete steps towards addressing an explicit opinion (expressed during election campaigns) on restoring the right to travel to Cuba for all US citizens. Last year, the AP/Ipsos poll revealed 40 percent of Americans want to vacation in Cuba. ASTA’s testimony to the International Trade Commission predicted that within two years after the restrictions end, there will be an increase of 1,798,000 visits by Americans. On the third year, ASTA estimates about 3 million visitors.
Until now, the move has had no impact to travel agent business. “We’re happy but not happy enough,” said Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours USA, an operator specialized in Cuba tours.
Unless an American has a special license, such as those granted to humanitarian groups and journalists, he would need to fly into Havana from another country to sidestep the travel ban. Canada and Mexico are popular points of departure. Once in Havana, an American’s recommended strongly to ask the customs agents not to stamp his passport to avoid raising red flags later. Paldi said travelers who have a religious license can go. But not every synagogue or church is approved for religious reasons. It’s a treasury decision, Paldi added.
According to Jane Franklin, author of Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History, American’s constitutional rights are primarily violated by the Cuban travel ban that began in 1961 as part of the plan to invade Cuba under Pres. Eisenhower. She said: “There has been no consistent travel ban to Cuba. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have the right to travel abroad. But in 1961, US passports had to be specifically endorsed for Cuba until 1963, when the travel ban was fully implemented making it likewise illegal to spend money in Cuba based on the Trading with the Enemy Act.”
Every 6 months, the president would get a message about whether to sign or not the travel ban. Every 6 months, the ban was either approved or disapproved. Every 6 months, the president signed it until Jimmy Carter took office. He did not sign, said Franklin. “For a few years, Americans again had the constitutional right to travel abroad to Cuba. But when President Reagan signed, we were banned again from Cuba. Today, it takes more than that because the president alone cannot lift the travel ban entirely. He has enough power though, and essentially can restore the full rights to travel to Cuba. And that’s what is missing in this equation,” explained Franklin.
Obama says a select group of Cuban-Americans can now travel whenever they want and send a certain amount of money back home. “But neither the rest can go freely to Cuba because they don’t have family there, nor the American people, majority of whom cannot visit Cuba without a very special permit from the State Department,” said Franklin. She said there is a select group of Cuban-Americans kept intact to lobby Washington.
But John McAuliff, executive director of Fund for Reconciliation and Development, thinks Obama’s policy marks a significant humanitarian step. “But this doesn’t help at all the travel trade. What is important to the travel industry is for the president to authorize a full range of travel for American citizens,” he said.
As he’s been championing this cause, McAuliff feels some sense of achievement with unrestricted trips to Cuba for Cuban-Americans. He said it’s good the president has fulfilled his commitment. “There probably will be about 200,000 to 300,000 Cuban-American families who will visit their homes, stay at private homes or low budget hotels, but not expensive ones. They will not be the wealthy Cuban-Americans but the working class, Cubans who have been in the US for 10-20 years,” said McAuliff adding Obama’s announcement technically ended the artificial separation Cuban migrants from their families.
“We would like to see the travel restrictions lifted totally for all American travelers, not just native Cubans. Interest in Cuba travel will grow, but our business remains limited until the restrictions are imposed by the administration,” Paldi said. The new directives will not bump up his business as his company does not handle ethnic minority travels, only Americans traveling to Cuba, he added.
Asked if the airline industry tends to benefit from Cuban-Americans flying home, McAuliff said there will be an increase in charter flights. “This is potentially clearing a backlog of people who traveled illegally through a third country; but this backlog is not big enough to make a dent,” said McAuliff expecting few extra charters from Miami, New York or New Jersey perhaps.
Cuba needs to prepare for the influx. Infrastructure requires overhaul, expansion or addition. The future increase in tourism in a relatively short time, should be met by increase in hotel rooms, tourist buses, tour guides, parking space, roads, restaurants and so on. Paldi said, “We also need to distinguish between the American traffic that will stay at resorts in Cuba mainly Veradero and the area that will compete with other Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic or Costa Rica; and tourists who’d go to Cuba to get to know the island, culture, history, people, eco-tourism which we’ll be involved following what Ya’lla is doing now under the restrictions.” Prices for land arrangements are an issue for Americans who are charged way too high in Cuba, according to Paldi, compared to what Europeans and Canadians pay. Cuba needs to adjust rates fairly.
“Cuba infrastructure is not ready for the peak season. When the time comes and prices rise, people who bring in low-budget tourists from Canada and Europe, will replace them with higher-paying US tourists. Those who pay less for airfares are prepared to pay higher for resorts for a week or two. There has been a build up of hotels at key areas in Cuba coming from foreign investments on joint ventures,” said McAuliff, adding that there are vacancies in the later spring and summer, early fall and during hurricane season. He said: “We’re past the high season. There’re also a lot of private homes which could be extended to low-cost housing for low-budget tourists and backpackers.”
“This is an important first step for the Obama administration to end the ban for travel for Cuban-Americans with the eventual final step of eliminating the ban for all Americans. When the Americans come, they can see the good, the bad, and the reality that Cuba is all about,” said Keith Bolender, author of the book, The Oral History of Terrorism against Cuba.
On safety and security, Bolender said people are safe in the midst of Cubans. In his book, he said in the past 45 years Cuba itself has experienced thousands of acts of terrorism, more than 3,000 people have died. “There were bombings of department stores and theaters in the 1960s. … the Cubana Airline bombing in 1976 that killed 73 people — the masterminds of this bombing, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, are still free in the United States. In 1997, a series of hotel bombings in Havana killed an Italian tourist and injured many others.” Carriles and Bosch are still at large in Miami. Asked if he thinks these Cuban-Americans will be welcome in Cuba, he said: “I think the Cuban government would like them back!”
Serious work is ahead for McAuliff’s group. “We’ll work very hard in the coming days for the president to use his authority to support tourist travel for educational, humanitarian, cultural, sports, not only for Cuban-Americans but for all travelers who would eventually book regular flights and use rated hotels. But lifting the embargo is not my issue right now because that has to happen in Congress. Obama cannot restore all travel; he can only restore non-tourist travel unless he has the same parameters Clinton had which is the non-tourist category,” he said.
“Having Americans travel to Cuba will be an education for them, and not just finding out about the other side of the story between Cuba-American affairs running over 50 years today. Americans would like to see how the people and the government have reacted to the sanctions,” said Bolender.
Paldi said, “I hope what we’re seeing now is a step towards lifting the travel restrictions. I am very positive today after having spoken to over 50 travel agents in the last 6 hours, asking me about imminent opportunities, interests, curiosity and desire by others to travel to Cuba,” referring to floodgates opening when the government ends the ban akin to a 50 year-old forbidden fruit.