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April 02, 2009

Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?

Few Americans have waded
in these seas

by Barbara S. Peterson

Here's the latest stimulus package to come out of Washington: Take one formerly forbidden destination, mix in short, cheap flights and bargain beach resorts, and it's hello Havana, good-bye overpriced tourist traps. Today a phalanx of more than 120 House lawmakers joined a gaggle of two dozen like-minded senators to call for a full repeal of the 47-year-old ban on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba, the only country in the world our government expressly forbids us to visit. (Technically, it's a Treasury Department ban on spending money there--but it's the same thing). 

So it's exciting to hear reports out of Havana that U.S. airlines are already in "regular and direct contact," as one source put it, with Cuban travel industry officials about resuming direct air links between the countries.

Calls in to several major lines, including American and Continental, were not returned, but a spokeswoman for the airlines' lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, said the group "will be watching this development with great interest." That's an understatement. While cruise lines could certainly step in to fill demand in the immediate future, airlines will have to compete to get permission from the Transportation Department to fly to a new country, and typically such deals include reciprocity for the flag airline of the other country. Cubana, with its clapped-out Soviet-era planes, isn't exactly going to give our beleaguered airlines much competition.

Not everyone involved is thrilled at the prospect of Cuba becoming the next Cancun. Several Cuban Americans I spoke with recently expressed concerns about the unbridled development this could set off.  But tourism is important to Cuba; the island already receives 2 million visitors a year from countries like Canada, Britain, and Spain, whose citizens can go there. U.S. tourism officials predict that American visitors to the island could top 3 million annually.

Certain Americans can travel there now--academics, journalists, and some others who fit some strict criteria--but even they must apply to the State Department for permission or risk a $7,000 fine. There is direct service from Miami and (soon) JFK via charter airlines, but you can't just go online and book; this trip involves travel agencies and the ritual red tape. And it's an open secret that many Americans are already going there illegally via a third country.

It's obvious why this is coming up now, just months into the new administration. George W. Bush's hostility towards the Castro regime led him to tighten up this arcane rule. While there are still a few members of Congress who strongly oppose anything that looks like we're cozying up to the Castro regime, odds are that lifting the ban is an idea whose time has truly come. Supporters predict the move will create jobs in the travel and tourism industries and lead to an easing of trade barriers.

So readers, should the U.S. government lift the ban on our right to travel to Cuba?


Travel to Cuba would be great, but once the government ban is lifted, I believe it could take years before airlines being service because, correct me if I'm wrong, Cuba's current state of their air traffic control and airport infrastructures do not meet international safety standards.

Sounds Great! But what happens when the partying American breaks one of their wacky laws? Good luck getting out of the country! The country 'is' beautiful I'm sure, but that's just what you're going to see. What you're not going to see is what the Bush adminstration, as well as many other Senators are or were concerned about.

To Airline Employee -- your point is well taken; years of isolation haven't done anything for Cuba's aviation infrastructure. However, currently several European airlines including Virgin Atlantic offer scheduled flights to Cuba so there is no reason to think that the U.S. airlines couldn't do the same.

Readers who want to travel to Cuba should be urging the President to use his authority to enable people to people non-tourist travel immediately (educational, religious, humanitarian, cultural, sports) through the White House Office of Public Liaison web page, , preferably also faxing a copy to Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, at 202-647-7095

The next step is to get your Representative and Senators to co-sponsor or at least promise to vote for legislation to end all travel restrictions (HR 874, S 428).

Travel agents, tour operators and travel writers should consider attending the International Tourism Fair in Havana May 4-8

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