Obama’s new Cuba policy depends partly on hotel hand towels
By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
HAVANA (AP) — The success of President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy
depends partly on hotel hand towels.
Not just hand towels, but working air conditioning, breakfast waffles
and the hundreds of other amenities that American tourists will demand
when they flood to Cuba in numbers that travel experts expect to double
this year, thanks to the loosening of travel restrictions on Friday.
U.S.-based Cuba travel companies say there’s simply no more room in the
handful of top-end Cuban hotels that meet international standards. That
means that if visitors come in numbers as great as expected, they will
have to find lodging either in grim, lower-end state facilities or one
of the most vibrant parts of Cuba’s small, new private business sector:
family-run guest houses that offer independent sources of private income
to thousands of Cubans.
That scenario is exactly what Obama said he hopes to achieve. When he
announced the policy on Dec. 17, the president said that the U.S. wants
to be “a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit
easier, more free, more prosperous.”
The first test of the new U.S. approach may come down to where new
American travelers choose to lay their heads at night.
“A significant increase in U.S. travelers would overwhelm the system and
overwhelm the availability of the Cubans to keep tabs and keep controls
on these travelers,” a U.S. official involved in the execution of the
new policy told The Associated Press on Friday. “The hotels aren’t going
to be able to handle it. You’re going to see a spillover into the
private sector, which is a good thing.”
The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of
authorization to speak publicly about the new policy.
Juan Hernandez Rabelo, 65, is taking English lessons three times a week
to help him communicate with future clients at Casa Vitrales, an
immaculately restored high-end colonial guest house he runs with his son
in Old Havana.
“This is going to help our business and the country,” Hernandez said of
Obama’s new policy. “It opens new opportunities for guest houses to
absorb a greater number of tourists.”
The new Treasury Department rules that went into effect Friday eliminate
a burdensome and costly requirement for specially licensed tour groups
to obtain federal permits to take U.S. travelers to Cuba on trips with
educational itineraries that needed approval in Washington.
Most U.S. travelers still will be required to go on supervised group
trips, but now virtually any U.S. company or organization can offer such
trips without the paperwork and inspections that discouraged past
expansion of travel to Cuba. Some tour operators, already seeing
unprecedented interest in legal travel to Cuba, expect some tourists to
simply ignore the restrictions.
Companies that have been organizing travel to Cuba for years say they
expect legal travel to Cuba to at least double this year, from a figure
of roughly 90,000 American visitors annually over recent years.
And any significant surge, they say, is guaranteed to overwhelm Cuba’s
“Even with 90,000 Americans going a year it’s a nightmare to get the
hotel rooms,” said Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel. He
said his company he’s seen booking double over the last three weeks, to
about 1,000. He said that he, too, expected Cubans to begin investing in
more guest houses that are legitimate lodging options for visiting
“You’ve already started to see that,” he said. “In the last few years,
all of a sudden you’ve seen people who realize if I invest a little
more, increase the water pressure, then you’re actually competing with a
Cuban state authorities say they are confident that the country can
handle a surge in tourists and that they have already been getting ready
for at least 1 million Americans a year, a number they expect to come
after the U.S. embargo is ended by Congress.
“The country has enough hotel capacity to absorb an increase of this
magnitude. We’ve prepared ourselves for that day,” said Jose Manuel
Bisbe, president of Havanatur, one of Cuba’s main state-run tourism
U.S. experts say that may be overly optimistic, particularly because the
U.S. ban on pure tourism means the most developed high-end destination,
the Varadero beach resort about 80 miles east of Havana, effectively
remains off-limits to U.S. visitors. And even Bisbe acknowledged that
some of Cuba’s current offerings are sub-par.
“In terms of quality of service it’s certain that we have a series of
problems that we have to solve,” he said.
The restrictions on Cuban travel have made the island either a
surreptitious destination for young people who go illegally through
Canada or Mexico, or an expensive, boutique product for older and
Barbara Dresner, the retired owner of a New York of clothing stores,
joined a five-day Havana jazz tour that cost about $5,000 per person and
said she was unpleasantly surprised by some aspects of the five-star
hotel where she stayed.
“There are no washcloths,” she said Thursday night. “In American hotels,
they always have washcloths.”
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein
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