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Posted July 07, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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Tighter U.S. trip limits might bring more ‘last-chance’ tourists

By TRACEY EATON | The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA – The millionth person to visit Cuba this year arrived a week ago, and government officials called it a sign that the country’s tourism industry has bounced back from a slump that began after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

More tourists are traveling to Cuba now than at any time in the island’s history, new government figures show.

Still, the island remains a controversial destination. Some Americans are scrambling to visit before new U.S. laws further restricting travel take full effect. Others say they won’t go until Cuba is a democracy that fully respects human rights.

Tourism brings Cuba about $2 billion in revenue per year. It is the country’s most important industry, accounting for 41 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, and some analysts believe the Cuban government would collapse without it.

U.S. officials want the socialist regime to fall, and they restrict travel to Cuba to squeeze the country’s economy. Under U.S. law, only diplomats, scholars, journalists, Cuban-Americans and some others have been allowed to go to the island.

In March, the Bush administration tightened those restrictions, outlawing most travel to Cuba for educational purposes. Many companies that sell educational packages to the island are now offering “last-chance” trips to Cuba before their permits to operate such tours expire.

Ana Perez, Cuba program director for Global Exchange in San Francisco, said the number of people wanting to go to Cuba through her organization has doubled in recent months.

Visitors “fall in love with what Cuba’s all about,” she said. “In the U.S., we’re isolated. The more money we have and the more we buy, the less we are connected to ourselves and others. In Cuba, people touch and people talk. There’s a real ‘humanness’ there. And a lot of Americans say going there is the most amazing experience of their lives.”

An estimated 154,000 people 85 percent of them of Cuban descent visited Cuba from the United States last year, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York.

The total number of visitors in 2002 was more than 1.6 million, Cuban officials say. This year, they expect 1.9 million, which would break the previous high of 1.7 million in 2001.

Growth in Cuba’s tourism industry has been explosive.

Just 13 years ago, only 340,000 foreigners visited the country. Today the island is the ninth most popular destination in the Americas.

Ninety percent of travelers come from Europe, Asia or the Americas. Most are Canadians, Italians, Spaniards and Germans.

The number of hotel rooms has tripled to 40,000 from 12,900 in 1990, Cuban officials say. The number of employees in tourism climbed from 54,000 in the early 1990s to 100,000. And they are educated: 75 percent have junior college, trade school or university degrees.

“The Cuban people are great,” said Nicholaus Zinis, 25, a Michigan student who visited Havana recently.

“They like Americans,” added Catherine Gavin, 27, a student from Austin. “They don’t blame us for our government’s policies. That’s been really refreshing to see.”

U.S. laws tightening travel to the island will probably trigger a rise in illegal visits by Americans, said Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba.

Those who break the law on travel to Cuba risk civil penalties of $55,000 per violation.

Some Americans avoid detection by going to Cuba through Mexico, Canada or other countries.

Mr. Miller, who has helped lead trips to Cuba by the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History, said Americans should visit the island now “because it will never again be the same.”

The island “is changing radically,” he said.

The tightened travel restrictions will probably prevent 15,000 to 20,000 Americans from visiting Cuba next year, Mr. Kavulich said.

If the trade ban ends, 1 million to 4 million Americans are expected to travel to the island during the first year, according to a 2001 report by Arthur Andersen.

For now, the rush is on to see Cuba before the restrictions take full effect. Typical four- to 10-day trips cost $1,400 to $3,000.

Sandra Levinson, director of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York, said she’s gotten a “huge response” from people who want to go on one of her organization’s Cuba trips.

She adds that she believes the Bush administration’s efforts to cut travel to the island will backfire.

“Most Americans get pretty disgusted when the government tries to tell them not to do something they have a right to do,” she said.

Others contend that visiting the island is morally wrong because it helps prop up what they describe as a totalitarian regime.

Last week, Reporters without Borders in Paris began handing out 1,100 postcards at French airports asking tourists to avoid Cuba to protest the government’s March crackdown on political dissidents, journalists and others.

Unfazed, Cuban officials continue building new hotels and other attractions. And they project that the yearly number of visitors will climb to 7 million by 2010, bringing in $11.8 billion.

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