By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK | The New York Times
While Cuba remains off-limits to most leisure travelers under U.S. law, it has rolled out a refurbished welcome mat to tourists over the past 10 years, and a growing number of Canadians are picking Cuba over destinations in the United States, a trend that worries some Florida officials.
A report issued in December by Visit Florida, the state’s tourist board, warned that some of Cuba’s success in attracting tourists, especially Canadians, might be at Florida’s expense. The Cuban Tourist Board, on the other hand, is crowing. It reports that the number of Canadians traveling to Cuba has grown by an average of nearly 15 percent a year for the past five years, to more than 350,000 last year. (The trend stalled briefly after the Sept. 11 attacks, but has since resumed.)
Expense is the foremost reason for the growing popularity of Cuban vacations, said Martha Chapman, a spokeswoman for Signature Vacations, a charter tour company in Toronto. As the U.S. dollar has grown more expensive to Canadians over the past five years, they have sought the less expensive but equally lustrous Cuban beaches, Chapman said. “It is our poor limping loony,” she said, referring to the Canadian dollar and its image of a loon.
Not only are resorts in Cuba cheaper, she said, many of them offer all-inclusive packages that appeal to the cost-conscious, while few Florida resorts do. “At least 80 percent of our Ontario vacationers are on all-inclusive packages, and in Quebec it’s 90 percent,” she said.
Cuba is less than four hours from Toronto by air. In a twist on recent decades, anxieties about security in the United States may also favor Cuba and other Caribbean destinations, said Heather Nicholson-Morrison, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association, which lobbies governments in Canada and elsewhere on behalf of Canadians who head south for the winter.
She said that with the specter of terrorist attacks hanging over flights to and from the United States, first after Sept. 11 and now with a possible war with Iraq, many Canadians have begun to see Cuba as safer than Florida.
She added that the increased security at the United States border is time-consuming and daunting to many Canadians. Entering Cuba from Canada, on the other hand, usually entails just a quick flash of a passport.
“The Cuban tourist board in Canada saw an opportunity and they have capitalized on it,” she said. “The Cubans have been inundating Ontario and Quebec with travel information and advertising to get people to go to Cuba.”
The Cuban government, which operates many of the country’s resorts, is a major advertiser in the Canadian Snowbirds magazine, CSA News, Nicholson-Morrison said. (It does not run the ads in the United States edition.)
The Cuban government, deprived of aid from the former Soviet Union, has made courting tourists a top priority. On Jan. 23, Fidel Castro personally presided over the opening of Hotel Playa Pesquero, the newest and largest of the scores of beach resorts the government has opened all over the island. Double rooms at the nicest all-inclusive resorts average about $250 a night, according to the season.
“Cuban resort” may seem like an oxymoron to some tourists, but the new developments are a potent lure to Canadians, who travel to Cuba mainly for standard beach vacations. Tourists from the United States generally head to Havana for a taste of Cuban culture and the thrill of a country legally forbidden to them, Canadian travel agents and Cuban tourist authorities said.
What worries the Florida tourist board is that if the United States drops its embargo on Cuba, domestic vacationers may seek Cuban beaches, too. Over the past 10 years, Visit Florida’s recent report found, the number of tourists heading to Cuba has grown from less than 500,000 a year to nearly 2 million. The amount they spend there has increased from less than $500 million a year to nearly $2 billion.
In 2001, Cuba was the most popular Caribbean destination for vacationers from Canada, drawing 350,000 of its citizens, or 20 percent of Cuba’s foreign visitors, the Florida tourist organization said.
For now, Cuba’s competition for Canadian vacationers is a limited threat to Florida’s tourist industry. As usual, Canada sent more visitors to Florida in 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, than did any other foreign country; but Canadians accounted for just 2 million of the 70 million visitors to Florida that year, said Tom Flanagan, communications director for Visit Florida.