NBC-2.com

For tourists other than Americans, Cuba is considered a burgeoning Cancun. At least two million people visit there every year. Lee County tourism officials are studying what makes Cuba so popular and what would happen to Florida tourism if the borders between the United States and Cuba opened.

Christopher Columbus is quoted as saying Cuba was “the most beautiful land the human eye has beheld,” when he first arrived on the shores of Cuba in 1492.

Five hundred years later, thousands of tourists flock to Cuba every year to see for themselves.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a more lovely beach than down in Varadero. The sand is white, the water is blue, clear, clean, it’s lovely,” said Canadian tourist Alan Dyack.

Varadero is called the Cuban Cancun.

Even a blustery day does not dampen the glowing praise by visitors.

The Xanadu mansion built in 1928 stands guard over the northern shore. The all inclusive Melia Las Americas resort is a joint venture between a Spanish company and the Cuban government.

“I would say it’s a bit between average and excellent. It is on the better side,” said German tourist Claudia Philippi.

It’s also inexpensive. A week-long stay, with airfare and golf, costs Canadian tourists about US$800.

It’s much cheaper than a similar trip to Southwest Florida.

Despite that, Lee County tourism officials do not view Cuba as a threat to their bottom line, even when and if unrestricted travel and tourism by Americans begins.

“The visitors would go once to Cuba and that was it,” said D.T. Minich.

Minich is the executive director of the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. The VCB did a study with people who traveled to Florida and Cuba to learn about the competition posed by Cuban resorts.

“Our customers really like to be able to move around and experience different restaurants and not be on site all the time,” said Minich.

But Cuba has more to offer than just beaches. The Cuban government has invested heavily in tourism. It’s the nation’s most profitable industry, just like in Florida.

Renovations in old Havana have turned decrepit buildings into posh hotels worthy of American notables such as former President Jimmy Carter and actor Robert Deniro.

Havana is also a port of call for cruise lines.

Tourism leaders expect Havana to become a major stop on trips leaving from Florida when and if travel opens up.

“They’ve got Havana port mapped out,” said Minich.

“Royal Caribbean will go here, Carnival here, they’ve already got it all set up,” said Minich.

There’s even discussion that could one day lead Southwest Floridians to the island.

“The ferries we’re talking about would be a 2-stop thing. You would go from here to Key West, Key West to Havana and back,” said Minich.

Cuba could become one more competitor for tourist dollars.

The US government requires people to get a license to travel to Cuba.

The primary goals of the embargo are to spawn democratic reforms on the island and deny Fidel Castro the resources needed to repress his people.

The top Cuban diplomat in Washington says opening the island to millions of American tourists and dollars would have a much bigger impact and influence on the people and government of Cuba.