Much has been made of the President’s recent comments about opening up diplomatic relations and travel to Cuba. Indeed this would be a boon to the island nation but it won’t be any time in the immediate future.
Presently, over a hundred thousand Americans visit Cuba each year. Most are returning to see family members but there are other limited exceptions like humanitarian and educational purposes. For those who don’t qualify under the present rules, many have simply done an end around by traveling to Cuba via Canada or one of the Latin American countries. It has been reported that Cuban immigration officials know the sensitivity of U.S. travel to their country, to the point that they won’t place a Cuban stamp in the passport.
I believe there is no doubt about the pent up demand for travel to Cuba despite the political disappointment to some. Eventually I expect some cruise ships to travel to Cuban ports instead of Key West, then travel on through the Eastern or Western Caribbean. No doubt many hotel chains are already planning to set up base there despite the risk that the government could nationalize their properties at any time. Down the road, expect some world class resorts on Cuban beaches.
However, none of this will happen without major infrastructure changes. For example, Cuba needs to modernize its ports, meaning anything from dredging to building new facilities. In addition, they will need to update their airports and the number of hotel rooms will have to grow exponentially to deal with the masses that desire to visit Cuba.
There is understandable concern about how such a sudden, large influx of visitors to the country may change not only its culture but also substantially increase prices. I expect Cuba will be like most other destinations around the world. They will maintain their 1960s-ish charming areas while at the same time dramatically modernizing many of their coastal cities. As with all tourism, increasing hotel rooms and other conveniences for visitors becomes a supply/demand thing so I would expect prices to increase quite a bit initially.
If Cuba stands to earn a fortune from us traveling there, what do we gain in the U.S.? Actually, a lot. This country has a very rich history, predating the arrival of Christopher Columbus over 500 years ago. We as travelers will gain an experience that few Americans have enjoyed. That, plus the different culture, is enough to entice many travelers. We will also be able to enjoy some of Cuba’s finest exports such as their rum and cigars, reported to be some of the finest in the world. U.S. hotel chains, airlines, travel agents, and tour operators will benefit from this influx of visitors as will cities receiving additional Cuban visitors. Banking and exported U.S. goods to Cuba also will increase. Notwithstanding the political issues, this is a win all around for everyone, in many ways similar to when we opened travel and trade with China.
So, when can we travel to Cuba? Maybe never. The first step is for the U.S. Treasury Dept to issue regulations that will expand the type of visitors. You may recall it took Customs and Border Protection (CBP) two full years to finalize regulations for the APEC business travel card. To normalize relations with Cuba and open travel to all Americans may require – literally – an act of Congress.
If you are an optimist, you might want to begin doing some research on the biggest island in the Caribbean. When the travel floodgates do finally open, it will be a popular destination from the beginning.