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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

U.S. not contributing to Cuba's visitor count

By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cuba is seen as an inexpensive option compared with Mexico, but Americans are still prohibited from visiting.

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Cuban tourism experts believe if the travel ban from the U.S. to the Caribbean nation were lifted, more than a million curious Americans a year would visit.

Americans have been banned for 47 years from vacationing in Cuba, making the communist island forbidden fruit. But if you're thinking that Cuba is one vast empty beach pining away for U.S. tourists, think again. It already has 2.4 million tourists a year, mostly Canadians and Europeans. Huge resorts and hotels line its beaches. The island has 50,000 hotel rooms, according to Cuban officials who appeared at a Cuba travel summit in March in Cancun, the industry trade journal Travel Weekly reported.

The catch? It's illegal for Americans to fly to Cuba, no matter where they originate their trip.

U.S. authorities cracked down a few years ago on Americans who violated the travel ban by flying out of Canada.

Technically, penalties for Americans interacting with Cuba can include 10 years in prison and $55,000 in civil fines. However, a report last fall by the Congressional Research Service found that prosecutions of Americans for violating the ban fell sharply after 2005. Only 32 people were prosecuted in 2008, mostly for buying Cuban cigars on the Internet.

Canadian travel industry officials who have been there report it to be very inexpensive, cheaper than Mexico. As a travel destination, it compares to Cancun or Riviera Maya, but in a time warp of 30 years ago very little commercialization. New resorts are in Cayo Coco, Santiago de Cuba and Holguin.

Sentiment for lifting the ban on travel to Cuba is widespread in Congress but not quite wide enough.

The Senate's Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (S. 428) and corresponding House bill (H. 874) remain in committee.