Southwest Florida International approved for specialized flights to Cuba


Naples News:

Getting to Cuba from Southwest Florida may no longer require a two-hour drive to Miami.

On Monday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection approved Southwest Florida International Airport to operate specialized flights between the US and Cuba. It was one of 12 airports, including Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa, to receive the designation nationwide.

Previously, only three airports were authorized to fly between the US and Cuba: Los Angeles International, Miami International and New York City-based John F. Kennedy International.

But those hoping to visit family and friends in the island nation will still have to make the drive east to fly out of Miami International for the time being. The Fort Myers-based airport is not approved for normalized travel to and from Cuba.

“No carriers are giving us regular service as of right now,” said Victoria Moreland, public affairs director. “But this gives us the possibility to operate charter flights to Cuba for humanitarian relief, religious rights efforts or any other special reason.”

Moreland said receiving this approval gives the airport the opportunity to attract carriers should circumstances require flights to Cuba.

“It means we have the merit to be able to handle that international traffic,” she said.

Local Cubans are hoping that this will soon mean regular commercial flights will operate out of Southwest Florida as well.

“Too many people travel to Cuba from this area. And it’s always a pain to travel to Miami first,” said Irenia Torres, who left Cuba seven years-ago and has lived in Naples for six years.

If Southwest Florida International started operating flights regularly to Cuba, she said she knows people who would fly there monthly.

Until this year, those of Cuban descent were not permitted to travel to Cuba more than once every few years. As part of President Barack Obama’s effort to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country’s future, he directed that all international airports apply to operate charter flights to and from Cuba.

To be eligible for approval, airports must be an international airport, have adequate staffing, equipment and facilities to process international traffic and must have an Office of Foreign Assets Control carrier service provider that is prepared to provide flights between the airport and Cuba. Southwest Florida International received its approval as part of that initiative.

Claudia Morales, a waitress at World Bakery and Cafeteria, a Golden Gate-based Cuban cafe, agreed that she would visit Cuba if it was less of a hassle to travel there. Morales left Cuba with her family at age six and has yet to go back.

She would like to fly there with her Cuban husband who came to the US when he was 15.

“We just haven’t had the time or the money to go to Miami and then fly there,” Morales said. “I’ve heard you need at least $1000 to cover flights, customs and taxes before you can even step foot in the country.”

Southwest Florida International is still far from operating regular, commercial flights to Cuba but the new designation gives it the opportunity to make the quick, 40 minute trip if the need arises.

“If and when the restrictions on flights ease up, the airport will be fully equipped and prepared to handle the travel,” Moreland said.

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New US rules promise legal Cuba travel for many


HAVANA – The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.www.cubaluxuryrent.com

Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department’s wrath.

“This is travel to Cuba for literally any American,” said Tom Popper, director of a tour operator, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.

But it won’t all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.

So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.

Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.

“President Obama and the administration continuously say they don’t want more tourism and that’s not what they’re trying to do. But that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.

“The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime,” he said.

If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.

In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana’s stately, but crumbling cityscape.

“Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba — legally!” trumpeted a recent press release for one would-be tour operator.

“You can go on forever,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the trips. “The subject matter is virtually limitless.”

Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.

Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from 2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.

Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.

Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.

The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction” with Cubans.

But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.

“It’s more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses,” Popper said.

Still, it’s a far cry from the pre-revolution days when Havana’s mob-controlled nightclubs and casinos were a playground for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Greta Garbo. Back then, cheap ferries and flights from Florida meant tourists could party through the night and leave in the morning without bothering to rent a room.

Academic visits already under way give an idea of what may be allowed.

A recent group of Iowa State University students who came to study sustainable food and development had an itinerary packed with activities like visits to farms, a coffee plantation and an environmental reserve. They also managed to stroll Old Havana on a guided tour, visit an art museum and take in a performance of “Swan Lake” by Cuba’s acclaimed National Ballet.

Agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft said the cultural experiences were key for students to understand Cubans and therefore an integral part of their study.

“We didn’t come here to be on a Caribbean beach; we came to be on farms,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.”

When the Bush administration shut down people-to-people visits in 2004, it cited allegations the rules were being abused.

“You had these groups going down and they would miraculously end up in Varadero (a popular beach resort) or at Hemingway’s home, or they’d end up at cigar factories,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It wasn’t something that was easy to defend when the State Department made inquiries.”

The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, Kavulich said.

So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.

U.S. officials vow to weed out frivolous trips.

“If it is simply salsa dancing and mojitos, no. That doesn’t pass the purposeful-travel criteria,” a State Department official involved with the policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

If the new travel rules are politically sustainable, they have the potential to be “a big business opportunity,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which offers licensed flights between Miami and Cuba and is expanding in anticipation of a surge of travelers.

“Hopefully (the U.S. government) will be issuing the licenses in a timely way and processing them quickly, and people will be able to begin going down. And we hope we can help them,” Guild said. “It’s a significant change.”

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U.S. issues new rules for travel to Cuba


Fox news:  The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday published new rules governing travel to Cuba which include the relaxation of some of longstanding regulations announced in January by President Barack Obama.

The president said then that after years of restrictions, U.S. students, journalists or members of religious organizations may travel freely to the island without asking U.S. authorities for prior permission.

That was the second occasion on which Obama had pushed for the relaxation of travel rules to Cuba after in April 2009 he announced that Cuban Americans could travel to the island any time they wanted.

According to the full document published Thursday by the Treasury, now U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Cuba without requesting government authorizations when they are going there to visit a “close family member” who is Cuban or works at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Accredited journalists, professionals who visit the island to participate in events such as conferences or meetings and students and professors who go to participate in educational activities will all be allowed to travel without restrictions.

Another group favored by the new rules are religious organizations recognized by the government, as well as agricultural and telecommunications firms that want to undertake advertising tasks or commercial negotiations on the Communist-ruled island.

The document specifies, however, when some of these groups will still have to request prior travel authorization, for instance when a freelance journalist or a member of a religious organization not recognized by the U.S. wants to visit Cuba.

Cuba to allow sale of private homes for first time since revolution


Cuba plans to allow people to buy and sell their homes for the first time since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, the BBC reports.

The decision came during the first congress held by the ruling Communist Party in 14 years.

No details were released on how the new property sales could work, but President Raul Castro is likely to elaborate on a wide-range of economic refroms during a closing speech today in Havana, The Miami Herald reports.

Cubans currently can could only pass on their homes to their children, or work out complicated, and often corrupt, swaps, the BBC reports.

While loosening the power on sale of property, Castro warns that the concentration of property would not be allowed.

Fidel Castro, 84, wrote in an editorial in the party newspaper Monday that he embraces the economic reforms. He no longer holds an official government or party post.

With Castro’s departure from a party position. the person elected to fill the No. 2 spot will be a major clue as to the direction of the country, The Miami Herald notes.

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Cuban Tourism Has Ambitious Projects for Growth


Madrid, Jan 21 (Prensa Latina) Cuba announced its goal to close 2011 with 2.7 million foreign visitors as part of an ambitious project of development of this booming industry that grew 4.2 percent last year.

We have concluded 2010 with good results within the complex situation of the world, with about 2.53 million international visitors, pointed out Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director of the Cuban Tourism Ministry (MINTUR).

Bisbe explained that a growth above eight percent this year implies 200,000 more visitors than in 2010.

It is a strong goal, above all considering world expansion in the sector of about 4 and 5 percent, the official told Prensa Latina.

Regarding the prospects for the industry in the Island, the official said that work is ongoing to incorporate new hotel accommodations in destinations such as Cayo Santa Maria in the central province of Villa Clara, as well as refurbishing the beach resort of Varadero, Cayo Coco and Holguin.

We are undertaking important works in the infrastructure that supports tourism in the historical center of the Cuban capital and in patrimonial cities such as Trinidad, Remedios, Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Santiago de Cuba and Baracao, he said.

He indicated that the Cuban government is involved in improving the quality of all the services in a small group of cities which are of interest for the Spanish market.

Among attractions for the visitors from Spain he mentioned new programs related to the Hispanic presence in Cuba such as the route of the Catalans, Asturians, Galicians and from the Canary Islands, just to mention a few.

Another product linked to this market is the cruisers with arrivals in Cuba that began last November in the ship Gemini of the Spanish Group, Quail Travel.

He explained that the Madrid fair has become an event of importance for many of tour operators who work in the Caribbean to meet with suppliers of services in the area.

Fitur is an excellent instrument of work because it gathers in one place and in a short time many contacts as well as serving as a showcase to observe what the rest of the world is doing and how to sell other destinations in our environment, he concluded.

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Cuba details brave new world of private enterprise


AP: HAVANA тА” Cuba’s communist leaders began laying out the details of their drive to create more free enterprise on the island on Friday, mapping out a brave new world of bosses and employees, personal accountants and a dizzying number of small-time businesses.

The plans тА” laid out in a three-page spread in the Communist Party-daily
Granma тА” follow last week’s announcement that the government will lay off
500,000 workers by the end of March, the biggest change in this country’s
economic system since the early 1990s.

For the first time, Cubans in 83 private activities will be allowed to employ
people other than their relatives. The Central Bank is even studying ways to get small loans into the hands of the country’s new entrepreneurs, according to the newspaper, which cited Economy Minister Marino Murillo Jorge and a vice-minister of labor and social security, Admi Valhuerdi Cepero.

Granma is the voice of the Communist Party and one of the principal ways the
government communicates plans with the people. The paper promised more details in coming days, saying that the expanded private enterprise would be “another opportunity, under the watchful eye of the state, which as a representative of the people, must find ways to improve the quality of life of Cubans.”

The new openings are sure to be welcome in a country where young people have been clamoring for more opportunities for years, but they will also create tension and upheaval.

The state dominates nearly every aspect of the Cuban economy, employing at least 84 percent of the work force and paying an average of $20 a month. In return, islanders are guaranteed free education and health care, as well as nearly free housing, transportation and basic food.

President Raul Castro has said the government can no longer afford such generous subsidies and that he wants to modernize Cuba’s economy, without abandoning socialism. Still the changes outlined over the past two weeks are sure to expand the breach between haves and have-nots in a land that has spent 50 years striving for an egalitarian utopia.

The article tries to allay any fears that the country is embracing free-market
capitalism, saying that the changes will always be “faithful to the socialist
principles our constitution demands.”

In all, some 178 private activities will be allowed and expanded, though only
seven of those are entirely new тА” including accountants, bathroom attendants, tutors and fruit vendors. One entire page of the newspaper was devoted to listing jobs that will qualify for self-employment. The list has everything from floral wreath arrangers to animal trainers to interior decorators.

The rules, which are set to go into effect next month, will also allow for a
great expansion of private restaurants тА” called paladares тА” which will be
able to serve more people and expand their menus to include higher-priced items like beef and lobster.

Previously, government rules limited them to 12 seats and placed restrictions on what their menus could offer, though most establishments blatantly violated the rules.

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British firms could be first foreigners to buy land in Cuba since revolution


Guardian:

British companies could be among the first foreigners to buy land in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, following a delegation to the communist state next weekend.

Up to 25 British companies are aiming to strike deals that could allow them to develop hotels, golf courses and renewable energy projects.

Law firm Eversheds, Esencia Hotels and Havana Energy are among the firms that will meet Cuban government officials, who are trying to attract foreign capital to boost the country’s shrinking economy.

“Cuba is open and prepared to receive foreign capital and to develop mixed projects along with the Cuban government,” said Igor Caballero, a Cuban embassy spokesman in London.

The present government, led by Raúl Castro, has promised economic reforms and last month approved a law allowing foreign investors 99-year land leases. Cuba already has commercial relationships with Russia and China, although their distance makes tourism and other trade deals expensive.

The British trip, organised by the independent Cuba Initiative, takes place between 26 September and 3 October and may lead to the first purchase of Cuban land by a foreign investor since 1959.

“We are optimistic of a positive outcome to the visit in terms of UK investment. There are significant opportunities in a limited number of sectors,” said David Jessop, director of Cuba Initiative. The organisation is co-chaired by Cuba’s foreign trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz.

Some projects, such as Esencia Hotels’ luxury resorts, could be worth up to $400m (£256m). The government could be prepared to sell 10 golf course sites, and other projects include a $40m development using a sugar-cane by-product to produce renewable energy, to be sold to the Cuban grid.

More than 170,000 Britons visit Cuba every year, a number beaten only by Canada, but Spanish companies such as the Sol Meliá hotel chain have bigger investments there.

Investing in Cuba is a challenge, because of the US embargo on the island, which limits banks’ ability to lend funds directed to Cuban projects. Cuba, which still has miles of virgin coast, does not have the resources to develop its own tourism infrastructure. The country’s economy is worth $60bn and its total electricity capacity is only slightly more than that produced by Britain’s Drax power station alone.

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