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.

www.particularcuba.com

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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.

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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Survey: 75% of U.S. consumers interested in Cuba visit


Sun Sentinel:

Would you consider a trip to Cuba if restrictions on U.S. travel to the island were lifted?

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Visit Cuba, visit Havana with Marysol Travel Services

A U.S. consumer survey released Tuesday found that 75 respondents would visit or at least consider a trip to Cuba, if Americans were allowed to travel freely there.

Another 1.7 percent said they’d already traveled to Cuba, according to the survey of 953 consumers conducted  by the Travel Leaders travel agency network from March 10 to April 10 across the United States.

The survey comes as the Obama administration issues new rules that make it easier for U.S. religious groups and educational groups to travel to Cuba with U.S. government approval. Most Americans are effectively barred from travel to the island under Washington’s nearly 50-year embargo on Cuba.

“Culturally and historically, Cuba fascinates a large number of Americans.  Physically, it’s amazingly close to the Florida coast, yet so far away because of continued restrictions for most citizens,” stated Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group in a statement.

“Like the traveling public, our Travel Leaders experts would welcome the opportunity to experience the country for themselves – the food, the music, the architecture, the beaches and the people – and then assist their clients in realizing a trip of their own to this forbidden destination that has been off-limits for nearly a half century,” he said.

The study found that when asked, “If all travel restrictions are lifted, how interested would you be in traveling to Cuba?”  U.S. consumers surveyed had these responses:

I’ve already been:  1.7 percent.

I’d go immediately: 20.2 percent.

I would go as soon as I believed Cuba was ready for Americans: 21.8 percent.

I might consider going: 33 percent.

I have no interest in going: 23.2 percent.

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Port, ferry operators want to run a slow boat to Cuba


Orlandosentinel.com: WASHINGTON — Imagine boarding a deluxe ferry boat at Port Everglades or the Port of Tampa one evening, settling into a cabin or a reclining chair and sailing into Havana harbor as the sun rises the next morning, all for $150 to $300 roundtrip.

Florida port officials are planning for this tantalizing prospect, while ferry operators push the Obama administration to allow them to make it a reality.

For thousands of Cuban-Americans and other passengers scrambling for seats on charter flights to Cuba, ferry service would be a cheaper new way to get themselves and lots of luggage to the island. Some of them once fled to Florida on rickety boats; now, they want to return by water to bring money and goods to their families.

The ferry operators want a piece of the growing traffic to Cuba, which is overwhelming air charters. Port officials want to position themselves to tap a potential burst of leisure travel if the U.S. ban on tourist trips to Cuba is ever lifted.

The ferry operators and port promoters are also developing plans for ferry service to other destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, potentially conveying some of the millions of visitors who pass through Central Florida’s vast vacation complex.

“The Cuba part requires government approval, but we are talking about ferry service throughout the Caribbean,” said Bruce Nierenberg of Orlando, a former cruise line executive who has applied to the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to establish a ferry line to Cuba from Port Everglades, Tampa and the Port of Miami.

He’s pitching it as a low-cost service for consumers, especially Cuban-Americans clustered in South and Central Florida, who can travel more frequently if they avoid airfares that cost nearly $400 roundtrip.

During a 35-year career in the travel industry, Nierenberg was CEO of Scandinavian World Cruises, started the one-day “cruises to nowhere” on Seascape and founded Premier Cruise Lines. He envisions well-appointed ocean-going ferries to Cuba carrying about 1,200 passengers who pay $150 for a reclining chair or about $300 for cabins.

He hopes to start with service to Cuba as early as this year to take advantage of a ready-made market and begin ferries to Mexico and other countries in 2012.

Ports gear up

“Eventually, somebody is going to make this happen. And Tampa would be the right fit,” said Wade Elliott, senior director of marketing for the Tampa Port Authority. “We’re ready. We have the terminal facilities. Whenever we get the green light, we will look for an opportunity to do it.”

Port Everglades also plans on a burst of business if ferries are allowed to make the 250-mile trip to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale. Port officials have talked with Nierenberg and contacted other potential ferry operators here and in Spain, France, Norway and Latin America who have shown interest in providing service.

“It could be an explosion in the market once people see the convenience of being able to drive to the port, get on a ferry and — after a nice dinner and a bit of sleep — arrive in Cuba,” said Carlos Buqueras, director of business development at Port Everglades.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has joined the push. She cites census data indicating that 110,000 Cuban-Americans live in Central Florida, 71 percent of them within an hour’s drive of Tampa’s airport and seaport.

“We must continue to focus on creating jobs and diversifying Florida’s economy,” Castor said, “which is why I support the new business that is interested in launching a ferry service to Cuba and Mexico from the Port of Tampa.”

Traffic surge

President Barack Obama set off a surge of traffic to Cuba in 2009 when he allowed Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to see their families.

He ignited another potential burst of travel in January with new rules that allowed more airports to establish flights to Cuba and made it easier for non-Cuban-Americans — especially educational and religious groups — to visit the island.

Air-charter operators with service from airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles estimate the number of passenger trips per year since 2009 has roughly doubled to about 400,000.

“Business is booming,” reported Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters in Miami, which flies to Havana five times a week. “The flights are full. We have more demand right now than we have flights.”

The demand intensifies pressure to allow ferry service from Florida’s seaports, which already have Customs and immigration facilities to process cruise line passengers.

“We need to open more gateways. The desire to travel is such that with the new regulations there just are not enough seats,” Silvia Wilhelm of Miami said last week while packing for one of her frequent trips to Cuba to visit relatives and escort cultural and religious groups.

Wilhelm, a longtime advocate for unlimited travel, said passengers now arrive at a remodeled terminal in Havana, a sign the Cuban government would welcome more visits.

Political objections

Some Cuban-Americans are appalled by the rush to Cuba, which they say sustains the Castro regime with a crucial infusion of American dollars. They and other defenders of the five-decade U.S. embargo hope to choke the Cuban economy and force political reforms, much like what is happening in parts of the Arab world.

When asked about the prospect of a ferry, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, cited a recent Cuban crackdown on human-rights activists. “Now is not the time to be giving unilateral concessions to this terrorist dictatorship,” he said. “The Obama administration should immediately rescind its recent lifting of sanctions and send a clear message that the U.S. will not tolerate Cuba’s lawless behavior.”

Sources with ties to the administration say the ferry proposal was considered when officials devised the new rules in January, but it was shelved for the time being because of security concerns.

Impatient to begin, Nierenberg said a ferry would simply offer consumers a different mode of transportation at a lower cost.

“The market is sitting there waiting to be activated,” he said, “and we would like to be the first.”

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