The Travel Industry's Push to Unlock Cuba


Politicians who favor a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba are getting new ammunition from the travel industry. Still struggling to recover from the effects of September 11 and the economy's downturn, the travel trade is mounting an aggressive lobbying campaign to get restrictions on travel to Cuba lifted when Congress returns in the fall. The industry argues that the island nation is a potential source of sorely needed revenues that would boost both the travel business and the U.S. economy. But getting Washington to lift the ban remains an uphill battle.

Just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, Cuba was a popular destination for U.S. travelers before Fidel Castro seized power on New Year's Eve, 1959. Castro imposed socialism and forged a cozy relationship with the Soviet Union, which prompted the U.S. government to restrict travel and trade in 1963 in the hope of ousting the dictator. The restrictions remain to this day. Yet, the aging Castro is still in power. (Cuban Americans can visit once a year. Others are allowed to visit for humanitarian, academic, or journalistic purposes.)

ECONOMIC GAINS. The Association of Travel-Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP), formed last June, is heading the lobbying efforts to lift the travel ban. The industry's argument: Easing restrictions could boost the U.S. economy in the long term by as much as $1.6 billion annually and create as many as 23,000 new jobs, according to The Brattle Group, an economic consulting firm that studied the issue for the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. U.S. businesses that stand to gain the most are airlines, cruise ships, tour operators, travel agents, and American-owned or operated hotels.

In Congress, U.S. Representative Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is a leading advocate for easing the rules. "The U.S. government argues that trade, commerce, and contact will help the people in Communist China, North Korea, and Vietnam, but the U.S. government touts a different tune regarding Cuba," he contends. "It simply makes no sense. At what point will the U.S. government concede the Cuba policy is not working and change its policies?"

When Congress returns from its August recess next month, advocates for change will push to lift the travel ban. Previous efforts have failed, but supporters are hopeful a more concerted strategy could work this time. Last spring, a bipartisan group of 10 senators formed the Senate Working Group on Cuba, similar to an existing House group representing 46 members. With increased backing, including the travel industry's efforts, both House and Senate groups will support identical measures hoping to open travel for Americans in Cuba.

SOFTENING ATTITUDES. Pressure is also building elsewhere to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. In Florida, home to a large Cuban-American population, support for easing the restrictions is growing. Polls conducted last February by both the Miami Herald and the Cuba Study Group in Florida showed that about 75% of South Florida Cuban-Americans now believe that U.S. policy to oust Castro has failed and that a new approach should be pursued. Some 64% of Cuban emigr? who came to the U.S. during the 1990s said they now support easing travel restrictions, although many Cuban-American organizations remain opposed to lifting the ban. The World Policy Institute will convene a summit in Miami on Oct. 4 to discuss U.S. policy toward the country.

Opposing the easing of restrictions are the Bush Administration, like every Administration since 1960, and House and Senate GOP leaders, who set the congressional agenda. According to a White House spokesperson, President George W. Bush "remains committed to the goal of achieving a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba by using the dissuasive tools of the economic embargo and travel restrictions."

Indeed, even if proponents succeed in getting the House and Senate to lift the travel ban, President Bush has threatened to veto the measure, and overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress. There appear to be enough votes in the House to override a Presidential veto, but not enough in the Senate. It could still be a while before Americans can say, "Havana great time in Cuba." By Cynthia Carris Alonso


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