Cuba revising travel policies: Raul Castro


HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba will revise its travel and immigration rules as part of a broader reform of its economic and social policies, Cuban President Raul Castro said on Monday.

He spoke after the Cuban Parliament approved Communist Party proposals to overhaul the country’s stagnating, state-dominated economy and lift some restrictions on citizens’ personal lives.

“The country is modifying decisions that played a role at a certain moment and unnecessarily were never changed,” the Prensa Latina news agency quoted Castro as stating.

“Today the overwhelming majority of Cuban immigrants leave for economic reasons and almost all of them maintain their love for family and the country where they were born,” Castro said.

He said rules still in place dated back to the earlier years of the revolution when immigration was largely political and manipulated by the United States.

It was not immediately clear what the changes in travel and immigration policy would entail. But Cuban regulations, which make it difficult and expensive to travel or move abroad, have long been criticized by local residents and human rights groups.

The economic reform plan approved by the National Assembly includes more than 300 points. It was first approved at a Communist Party Congress in April and would definitively do away with the decades-old paternalistic society built under Fidel Castro’s leadership.

Foreign journalists were not invited to the parliamentary meeting addressed by Castro. But he was paraphrased by state-run media as urging lawmakers and all citizens to adjust to the new times and model he is pushing by shedding bureaucratic habits.

“President Raul Castro said today that a change in mentality is indispensable to put into practice the changes the country needs,” Prensa Latina said.

ECONOMY SEEN IMPROVING

The measures, some already being implemented, were improving economic performance, Castro said, with growth at 1.9 percent in the first half of 2011 and on track toward 2.9 percent for the year, compared with 2.1 percent in 2010.

The reforms, to be implemented over five years, slash more than a million government jobs and reduce the state’s role in sectors such as agriculture, retail services, transportation and construction in favor of private small businesses, cooperatives and leasing.

Larger state companies are freed up to make more of their own decisions and take into account market forces, while regulations that prohibit normal personal affairs such as buying and selling cars and homes would be loosened.

At the same time state subsidies for everything from food to utilities will be gradually eliminated and state wages, which average the equivalent of $18 per month, increased.

The state has monopolized more than 90 percent of all economic activity and employed a similar percentage of the labor force since the earliest days of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

The country, which faces a stiff U.S. trade embargo, has yet to fully emerge from a two-decades-old economic crisis sparked by the demise of former benefactor the Soviet Union.

Castro has pushed for a new economic and social model based on individual effort and reward with targeted welfare, to replace one based on collective labor and consumption.

Raul Castro first replaced his ailing brother Fidel five years ago and then became president in 2008.

The single chamber parliament meets two times a year for only a few days and just about all of its members hold positions in, or are members of, the Communist Party, the only legal political organization in the country.

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First new U.S. airport gets go-ahead from Cuba


Cuba Standard: Tampa International Airport is poised to become the first of a series of additional U.S. airports that will be able to offer flights to Cuba.

Miami-based ABC Charters, a company that has been offering flights from Miami to Cuba, has secured landing rights in Cuba for flights from Tampa, the airport said in a press release. Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, told the airport that the first flight from Tampa to Cuba could start as early as Sept. 10.

In March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection allowed all U.S. airports with “adequate customs and immigration capabilities” to host Cuba flights. More than a dozen airports have received approval from USCBP, but Tampa is the first to have secured a carrier service provider with landing rights in Cuba.

Aral said at a press conference in Tampa that ABC would offer once-a-week flights to Havana, with frequency rising to twice a week in October, on American Airlines-provided Boeing 737-800s. ABC Charters currently flies seven times a week to Havana and three times a week to Holguín from Miami, usually in larger jets.

At least two other travel providers are vying to offer Cuba flights from Tampa, including Air MarBrisa and Island Travel & Tours, Ltd.

Tampa is the U.S. city with the second-largest Cuban population, following Miami. There are nearly 140,000 people of Cuban ancestry living within 90 minutes of Tampa International Airport.

In Atlanta, Delta Airlines said it is already licensed to operate charter flights to Cuba. In Fort Lauderdale, Airline Broker Co., which also has a license, is vying to offer twice-weekly flights. Other airports that have expressed interest in offering Cuba flights are Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, San Juan, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

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Cuban Tourism: A Single Strategy of Stability and Growth


Havana (PL) The development of the Cuban tourist industry is a focus of attention for the government on the island, and its impressive growth was recently reiterated by Carmen Casals, director of communications of the Ministry of Tourism.

During a meeting with communicators from six Latin American countries at Havana´s José Martí International Institute of Journalism, the expert predicted a promising future for this sector.

She said that there have been many changes in Cuban tourism since 1961, because at that time it depended on the United States, and after the economic barriers imposed by Washington against Havana, which are still in force, the industry was seriously affected.

Between 1979 and 1989, the development of new holiday resorts started, along with the essential one in Varadero, 140 kilometers away to the east of the capital, and the country´s main recreational hub.

By the 1990s, with the demise of the socialist camp, Cuba opened up to international tourism as an industry as well as to new investment processes.

A country like this archipelago, with a 25 degree-centigrade average temperature, 11.2 million inhabitants, 800 thousand university graduates, a road network of 46 thousand kilometers, a 78-year life expectancy and 300 beaches, has many attractions, she stressed.

Nowadays, the main recreational hubs are Varadero, with 35 percent of all tourism on the island, Havana with 23, Jardines del Rey with nine percent and the eastern region of Holguín with 10 percent.

Other tourist destinations include such interesting places as the westernmost province of Pinar del Río or the southern area of Cayo Largo. Right now, officials are involved in enlarging the recreational industry by making the most of every site.

Cuba is connected by air to 39 cities in the world, by means of 90 airlines, either on regular or charter flights; ten international airports are in operation and the flow of visitors is steady.

She added that there are 3 cruise terminal stations, in Havana, the central province of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba in the east. In addition there are ten international marinas, including two in Havana.

Hotel accommodation has grown significantly at a rate of 7.5 percent since 1990, and, at the moment, there are 52 thousand rooms in 334 hotels, 62 percent of them being four-and-five-star.

There is foreign participation by means of 65 managerial contracts for 28,854 rooms, through the Cuban companies Cubanacán, Gran Caribe and Gaviota.

These businesses involve 13 foreign hotel chains; among them Sol Meliá, Iberostar, Riu, Barceló, Occidentales Hoteles, Hoteles Blau and Hoteles C.

Concerning employment, tourism provides jobs for 110 thousand people, 60 percent of whom are high-school graduates and 22.3 percent university graduates; one third of them are under 35 years of age, 42.8 percent are women, and 31.5 percent are blacks and mixed.

Formatur, the tourist training system, is made up of 13 schools for upgrading, training and preparing staff, by means of different courses such as post-graduate, specialty and university training, among a large range of them.

This development makes things easier for the country´s economy, even though the U.S. economic barriers against Cuba, since 1961, have affected the sector with losses amounting to more than 22 thousand million dollars.

Casals added that in less than three years Cuba moved to the third position as an outstanding destination in the island Caribbean, and since 1990 has welcomed 30 million tourists.

She revealed that for some years now more than two million travelers per year have been received, and that figure is expected to reach 2.7 million visitors for the first time by the end of 2011.

She mentioned Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Mexico, in that order, as the main sending markets to the island.

Among her ministry´s priorities, she indicated, are improving marketing methods, developing the Auténtica Cuba promotion campaign, and recreational navigation.

She emphasized the importance of giving continuity to increasing the quality of the tourist product, spreading the training system and turning each hotel into a high-quality school, apart from plans for repairs and new constructions.

She wound up by mentioning the development of golf, the recovery of heritage facilities under the name of Hotels E (for encanto, or charm) and other projects supporting the strategy of a peaceful, healthy and safe tourism, one that protects the environment and gives prominence to culture.

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Int’l tourism to Cuba rises 10.6 pct in first half of 2011


Fox News: More than 1.5 million foreign tourists visited Cubain the first six months of this year, a figure that represents an increase of 10.6 percent compared to 2010, according to a report by the National Statistics Office cited Tuesday by the official AIN news agency.

Canada headed the list of the countries sending tourists to the island, followed by Russia, Argentina, Britain, Chile and France, AIN reported.

In addition, the report said that the United States was in eighth place in terms of tourist flow to Cuba despite the economic, trade and financial embargo maintained by Washington for nearly 50 years.

Tourism, the second-biggest contributor of foreign currency to the Cuban economy after technical and professional services, last year generated $2.1 billion from the visits of some 2.5 million tourists.

Cuba hopes to receive 2.7 million tourists this year, most of them from Canada and Europe, according to predictions by the Tourism Ministry.

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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Cuba reports more Americans visit forbidden island


HAVANA (Reuters) – The number of Americans visiting their country’s long-time foe Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to Cuban government figures, with the highest number in years likely in 2011.

Some 63,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba in 2010, up from 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to a report by the National Statistics Office (http://www.one.cu/aec2010/datos/15.3.xls).

U.S. citizens are forbidden from traveling to Cuba without their government’s permission under a wide-ranging trade embargo against the island imposed nearly five decades ago.

In the years following Cuba’s 1959 revolution the highest known number of U.S. visitors peaked at 70,000 under U.S. President Bill Clinton, then dropped to an average of 30,000 in the last term of U.S. President George W. Bush.

The 2010 numbers do not include 350,000 Cuban Americans estimated by travel providers and U.S. diplomats to have come to the island last year. Because Cuba considers them nationals, they are not listed in tourism statistics except within the broader category of “other.”

In 2009, Obama gave Cuban Americans a green light to visit their homeland at will and in January loosened restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba for professional, religious and humanitarian reasons.

The combined figures of U.S. travelers and Cuban Americans made the United States Cuba’s second-largest tourism provider after Canada.

Before the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, Cuba used to be an American playground, with hundreds of thousands of Americans visiting to gamble and have a good time.

But since the early 1960s, few have made the trip due to a general travel ban imposed by a U.S. trade embargo against the island.

LOOSENING OF RESTRICTIONS

The current rise in U.S. visitors is a result of the Obama administration loosening travel restrictions to Cuba to encourage more “people to people” contact in hopes of aiding political change on the communist-ruled island 90 miles from Florida.

As well as allowing Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba freely, Obama also authorized the issuing of licenses to more Cuba travel providers and allowed more airports to give charter service between the two countries.

Travel providers report they are swamped, despite delays in implementing the measures, and forecast more than 100,000 Americans not of Cuban descent will come to the forbidden island this year.

“In 2010, Marazul sent over 3,500 people to Cuba for academic, professional, religious and humanitarian reasons, as well as performing arts and sports groups,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Miami-based Marazul Charters.

“This year, we have already sent close to this number and, if the new people to people educational licenses begin to be issued soon by the Treasury Department, we project more than 10,000 people in 2011 traveling through Marazul under the new revised legal categories, not including people visiting their families,” he said.

Cuba has said it had 2.53 million tourists in 2010 with Canada the largest provider at nearly 945,000, followed by Britain at 174,000 and Italy at 112,000.

According to official figures, overall tourism was up 11.3 percent through May, compared with the same period last year.

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Revolutionary Cuba Now Lays Sand Traps for the Bourgeoisie


MEXICO CITY — One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power was to get rid of Cuba’s golf courses, seeking to stamp out a sport he and other socialist revolutionaries saw as the epitome of bourgeois excess.

Now, 50 years later, foreign developers say the Cuban government has swung in nearly the opposite direction, giving preliminary approval in recent weeks for four large luxury golf resorts on the island, the first in an expected wave of more than a dozen that the government anticipates will lure free-spending tourists to a nation hungry for cash.

The four initial projects total more than $1.5 billion, with the government’s cut of the profits about half. Plans for the developments include residences that foreigners will be permitted to buy — a rare opportunity from a government that all but banned private property in its push for social equality.

Mr. Castro and his comrade in arms Che Guevara, who worked as a caddie in his youth in Argentina, were photographed in fatigues hitting the links decades ago, in what some have interpreted as an effort to mock either the sport or the golf-loving president at the time of the revolution, Dwight D. Eisenhower — or both.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who maintains close ties with Cuba, has taken aim at the pastime in recent years as well, questioning why, in the face of slums and housing shortages, courses should spread over valuable land “just so some little group of the bourgeois and the petit bourgeois can go and play golf.”

But Cuba’s deteriorating economy and the rise in the sport’s popularity, particularly among big-spending travelers who expect to bring their clubs wherever they go, have softened the government’s view, investors said. Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but Manuel Marrero, the tourism minister, told a conference in Europe this month that the government anticipates going forward with joint ventures to build 16 golf resorts in the near future.

For the past three years, Cuba’s only 18-hole course, a government-owned spread at the Varadero Beach resort area, has even hosted a tournament. It has long ceased to be, its promoters argued, a rich man’s game.

“We were told this foray is the top priority in foreign investment,” said Graham Cooke, a Canadian golf course architect designing a $410 million project at Guardalavaca Beach, along the island’s north coast about 500 miles from Havana, for a consortium of Indians from Canada. The company, Standing Feather International, says it signed a memorandum of agreement with the Cuban government in late April and will be the first to break ground, in September.

Andrew Macdonald, the chief executive of London-based Esencia Group, which helps sponsor the golf tournament in Cuba and is planning a $300 million country club in Varadero, said, “This is a fundamental development in having a more eclectic tourist sector.”

The other developments are expected to include at least one of the three proposed by Leisure Canada, a Vancouver-based firm that recently announced a licensing agreement with the Professional Golfers Association for its planned resorts in Cuba, and a resort being designed by Foster & Partners of London.

The projects are primarily aimed at Canadian, European and Asian tourists; Americans are not permitted to spend money on the island, under the cold-war-era trade embargo, unless they have a license from the Treasury Department.

Developers working on the new projects said they believed Cuba had a dozen or so courses before the revolution, some of which were turned into military bases. Cuba and foreign investors for years have talked about building new golf resorts, but the proposals often butted against revolutionary ideals and red tape. Several policy changes adopted at a Communist Party congress in April, however, appear to have helped clear the way, including one resolution specifically naming golf and marinas as important assets in developing tourism and rescuing the sagging economy.

“Cuba saw the normal sun and salsa beach offerings and knew it was not going to be sustainable,” said Chris Nicholas, managing director of Standing Feather, which negotiated for eight years with Cuba’s state-run tourism company. “They needed more facets of tourism to offer and decided golf was an excellent way to go.”

The developers said putting housing in the complexes was important to make them more attractive to tourists and investors, and to increase profits.

Still, John Kavulich, a senior adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Cuba had a history of pulling back on perceived big steps toward freer enterprise and might wrestle to explain how such high-dollar compounds could coexist with often dilapidated housing for everyone else.

“Will Cuba allow Cuban citizens to be members, to play?” he said. “How will that work out? Allowing someone to work there and allowing someone to prosper there is an immense deep ravine for the government.”

But Mr. Macdonald said political issues were moot, given that Cuba already had come to terms with several beach resorts near Havana that generally attracted middle-class foreign travelers.

“It’s not an issue for them,” he said. “It’s tourism. It’s people coming to visit the country.”

If the projects are built as envisioned, the tourists will enjoy not just new, state-of-the-art courses and the opportunity for a second home in Cuba, but shopping malls, spas and other luxury perks. Standing Feather, which calls its complex Estancias de Golf Loma Linda (Loma Linda Golf Estates), promises 1,200 villas, bungalows, duplexes and apartments set on 520 acres framed by mountains and beach.

The residences are expected to average $600,000, and rooms at the 170-room hotel the complex will include may go for about $200 a night, a stark contrast in a nation where salaries average $20 a month.

Standing Feather said that to build a sense of community and provide the creature comforts of home among its clientele, the complex will include its own shopping center, selling North American products under relaxed customs regulations.

“It is in the area that Castro is from, in Holguin Province,” added Mr. Cooke, the golf course architect.

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