For Americans seeking sand and sunshine, this week’s announcement of normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba offered the future prospect of an enticing new travel destination. And for the U.S. travel industry, the policy—though it doesn’t fully open tourism to Cuba—has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.
“This news from Cuba is interesting to us,” said Andrew Alexander, president of Red Roof Inn, which announced its first international location, in Brazil, on Dec. 17. “I view it as the first step, and one that probably will ultimately lead to a further opening of the country. Which certainly makes Cuba—from a tourism standpoint—a target for most hotel companies.”
Visiting Cuba is like stepping back to an earlier time, before fast-food outlets and strip malls—and it’s not just because of the 1950s-era American sedans still on the roads, say people who have visited. “The first thing you learn when you step off the plane is everything you thought about the place isn’t true,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, a travel company that organizes daily charter flights from Miami to Cuba. Guild has visited the island “40 or 50 times” and says that Cuba has lost its political charge for most Americans and should not be restricted.
Sensing a huge business opportunity, many U.S. companies agree. “We believe passionately in the power of travel to bring peoples of different countries together,” an Orbitz spokesman said. “Visit Cuba in 2015 before the crowds,” Travelzoo blared Thursday in a tout for the small educational tours allowed under U.S. Treasury Department rules. “We believe that there is no greater way for Americans to break down barriers than through their unimpeded travel, where we collectively can exchange in a free flow of ideas,” Travel Leaders Group, which is based in Plymouth, Minn., and is one of the largest U.S. travel agencies, said in a news release.
But don’t pack your bikini for Havana just yet. Any move to open the tourism floodgates would need to come from Congress, an institution not known for alacrity or smooth functioning. There’s also the matter of infrastructure—Cuba has a thriving tourism industry but isn’t ready for a massive influx of American tourists. Moreover, even with Cuba’s trade and foreign investment from Latin America and Europe, the half-century-old U.S. embargo means that the nation’s economy is frail. Rationing of basic goods is common, and the black market flourishes. The government keeps close watch on visitors’ movements, which makes serious crime uncommon but keeps much of the nation off-limits to travelers.