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Posted October 20, 2003 by publisher in US Tourism to Cuba

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By JOHN RICE | Associated Press Writer

CANCUN, Mexico - While they would welcome the enormous influx of tourism dollars if the U.S. Senate lifts a travel ban, Cuban officials worry an “avalanche” of American vacationers would harm the very atmosphere that drew them in the first place.

At a conference that opened Friday between Cuban and U.S. tourism operators, both sides said limited hotel space could restrict any increase in American tourism, even if politics allows it.

“Pent-up demand is going to be huge” after decades of restrictions on U.S. visits, said Robert Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, which represents companies moving 10 million tourists a year.

Most estimates say at least 1 million Americans and perhaps many more could try to visit Cuba in the first year after a travel opening. Miguel Figueras, adviser to Cuba’s Tourism Ministry, said that figure could reach 2.5 million to 3 million in five years.

Cuba’s rapidly growing tourist industry accounts for 40 percent of the Cuban government’s foreign trade income. It expects to serve 1.9 million tourists this year, most from Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Britain.

The industry is still midsized by regional standards. There are 40,000 hotel rooms on the entire island of Cuba. Cancun, the Caribbean resort city hosting the conference in Mexico, has 26,000 alone.

“We have to avoid an avalanche because that is going to affect quality,” said Antonio Diaz, vice director of Havanatur, a government travel agency.

He said prices would likely rise to meet the demand and to limit an overload of tourists if Americans start flowing in.

The Cancun conference follows passage of a U.S. House appropriations measure that would block the Treasury Department (news - web sites) from enforcing a ban on most U.S. citizens spending money in Cuba.

The issue is now before the Senate, where the bill could be modified. If passed, it could be vetoed by President Bush (news - web sites), though that would hold up the budgets for the Treasury and Transportation departments.

Some major travel operators are starting to lobby Congress for an end to the ban on travel to Cuba, just as major Midwestern farm business groups earlier helped relax an embargo on agricultural sales.

“We are a large industry and sometimes we do not use the political power we have in terms of jobs, in terms of votes,” said Brad Belt, executive director of the Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals, which organized the conference.

Critics, led by Cuban-American organizations based in Florida, say tourism strengthens President Fidel Castro (news - web sites)‘s communist government, delaying his downfall after 44 years in power.

The travel officials here said it was an issue of American rights. “Americans should have the right to travel to any destination they want to see ... as long as it’s a safe destination,” Whitley said.

Loopholes in the travel ban let Cuban-Americans visit the island and more than 100,000 did so last year. Figueras said that another 77,000 U.S. citizens also visited only half of them using the U.S. government licenses granted for religious, humanitarian, educational or other approved purposes.

The illegal tourists commonly pass through Jamaica, Canada or Mexico to disguise their trips, though Bush administration officials recently vowed to dedicate anti-terrorism resources to restrict that practice.

“People are coming to Cuba. We think they should do it legally, they should do it the right way and they should use travel operators to do it,” said Matt Grayson, the government affairs director for the National Tour Association.


Industry officials here said Cuba is an especially attractive source of business to a U.S. travel sector hurt recently by terrorism fears and the rise of Internet bookings that bypass agents.

“For the most part, Cuba is not a do-it-yourself market,” Grayson said. Visitors “are going to need some professional advice.”

Figueras said that his agency estimates the United States loses $565 million for every 1 million visitors who are prevented from visiting the island a figure that included $300 million for airlines and $160 million for agents and tour operators.

Asked if he was worried about handling a possible flood of visitors, he said, “It’s better to have some fears than not to have them.”

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