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Cuba May Be Opening, but Business Remains Limited
JAN. 19, 2015
By JOE SHARKEY

THERE had been a line around the block for tickets, and when the lights
came up on opening night, Dec. 24, the reaction was wild — “applause,
tears, hugging in the audience,” said Robert Nederlander Jr.

The show was “Rent,” the musical about impoverished young artists
struggling on the Lower East Side of New York. The venue was the Bertolt
Brecht Theater in Havana, where Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment, of
which Mr. Nederlander is the president, has mounted a full
Broadway-style musical production, in a partnership with the Cuban
National Council of Performing Arts.

“We had expected this to be purely for a local Cuban audience, which
certainly was our goal in producing ‘Rent’ with our partners there. But
it turns out that we’re getting a sizable number of tourists as well,”
said Mr. Nederlander, who is a third-generation member of the
Broadway-based family theatrical dynasty.

Mr. Nederlander has been leading his company’s initiative to bring
Broadway musicals to emerging international markets. This has included
producing musicals like “42nd Street” in and presenting Chinese
productions in New York. Nederlander Worldwide first entered Cuba in
2011 with a musical revue at the Havana Theatre Festival called
“Broadway Ambassadors.”

Managing to obtain the necessary licenses and clearances while producing
two shows there makes Mr. Nederlander a pioneer of sorts as an American
business traveler to Cuba. “Rent” coincidentally opened just before the
Obama administration’s relaxing of strict travel restrictions to the island.

“I’ve been involved every step of the way for the last four years,” Mr.
Nederlander said of the work in Havana. “Rent” has an all-Cuban cast,
and a Broadway creative and theatrical team worked in Havana with Cuban
counterparts. The Spanish-language show is scheduled for a three-month
run. Tickets start at 50 cents in the 350-seat theater, he said.

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Much of the speculation surrounding the easing of the travel ban has
been about potential expansion of air service between Cuba and the
United States. But, with a few exceptions represented by cultural
activities like Mr. Nederlander’s, the business-travel market to the
island remains limited “simply because there is very little business in
Cuba,” said Michael Boyd, the president of Boyd Group International, an
consulting firm.

Mr. Boyd is not impressed by the short-term potential for expanded
travel to Cuba. “For one thing, there aren’t enough hotels, and the
quality is questionable,” he said. Rigid Cuban government policies on
private businesses deter the confidence necessary for major
-industry from abroad, he added.

So business travelers make do with what’s available. “The hotels were
adequate for our needs, though you don’t have the same choice and
selection as you would in capitals in other parts of the world,” Mr.
Nederlander said. One notable issue is service, which is not
available for most Cubans and is restricted mostly to large hotels for
visitors.

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“It depends on the hotel,” he added. “Some of them don’t have the
greatest bandwidth, but it’s certainly accessible. And you actually get
used to not having email access outside the hotel, if you’re there for a
week.”

There is no direct service on scheduled airlines between the United
States and Cuba. That is not likely to change soon because airlines in
the United States hoping to start commercial service face an approval
processes that could take over a year. For now, most of the limited
number of Americans who visit Cuba for leisure or business arrive on
specialized charter flights accredited for cultural, educational and
religious missions.

Of course, the by the United States hasn’t affected Cuba’s air
connections with Europe, Mexico, and Latin America, as Mr. Boyd
pointed out.

“Cuba is a trading partner with the rest of the world,” he said.
However, most existing international travel is by vacationers, not those
on business, in a country where private enterprise remains severely
limited and amenities are well below international standards.
“It’s kind of like the old East , but with really nice beaches,”
Mr. Boyd said.

Still, with the relaxations easing, there is demand for travel to Cuba
from the United States, including among those who travel by private jet.

“We’re getting a lot of requests from people saying, ‘Can we get to
Cuba?’” said Jeff Trance, the senior vice president for private jets at
the United States division of Air Partner, a company based near London
that brokers private jet flights globally.

“Obviously the answer right now is no,” he said, adding that it was too
soon to know when regulatory hurdles might be overcome. “Of course,
we’re looking at it and trying to figure out when that will open up.”

Just as it has been for commercial air service, however, Cuba has been
open for years to private jet travel from Europe and other countries.
“There’s never been an embargo for those countries,” he said, adding,
“If the airlines can get there, private jets can get there.”

Email: jsharkey@nytimes.com

Source: Cuba May Be Opening, but Business Travel Remains Limited –
NYTimes.com –
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/20/business/cuba-may-be-opening-but-business-travel-market-remains-limited.html?_r=0

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