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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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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