Traveling in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba

By | March 31st, 2008

Don’t pack your bags for Havana just yet.

Fidel Castro may have announced his resignation, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be touring the Plaza de la Catedral, strolling along Varadero Beach or diving on Isla de la Juventud any time soon.

“It’s still early for the American tourist to plan on sipping a mojito at the Hotel Nacional,” says David Guggenheim, who directs the Cuba program at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, Texas. “But change just might be in the wind.”

It could take time — months, or even years — before Cuba becomes the hot destination it used to be for American visitors, according to experts. But the doors to this once-closed island nation are already open to some Americans, and Castro’s retirement is likely to open them even wider.

Nothing is likely to change while President Bush remains in office. However, after the presidential election in November, and just in time for tourist season in the Caribbean, people expect a thaw. “Raúl Castro has indicated in the past that he would be open to a dialogue with the U.S., and presidential candidate Barack Obama has expressed his willingness to open a dialogue with Cuba,” says Guggenheim.

Not quite closed
Travel to Cuba isn’t illegal for Americans — at least, not all of them. Government officials, journalists, researchers and people attending conferences are allowed to visit the island nation, according to the State Department. Technically, travel to Cuba is limited under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations and the Trading With the Enemy Act.

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About 65,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2006. Among them were students at Ohio Northern University’s 11-week program in Environmental Management at the University of Havana. Terry Maris, an Ohio Northern University management professor who has visited Cuba many times as an academic, estimates that approximately 150,000 American tourists visit Cuba each year illegally. “If the embargo were to be lifted by the U.S. government, it is estimated that from 3 to 5 million American tourists would visit the island in the first year alone,” he says.

And that’s just the start. Several years after travel restrictions are loosened, Havana could conceivably become a subtropical Las Vegas — which is more or less what it was before Castro came to power.

“In the post-World War II period, Cuba outranked all countries in the world in the volume of passenger flow to and from the United States,” says Lisandro Pérez, a sociology professor and Cuba expert at Florida International University in Miami. “With jet airplanes, the actual flight is less than half and hour. Havana and Varadero are closer to Miami than Disney World.”

So what if there’s an embargo?
Once you have a license to visit, you can fly directly to Cuba from Miami, New York and Los Angeles on charter flights operated by some of the major U.S. airlines. But there are other ways to reach Havana. Some of the most popular routes include stopovers in Mexico, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and the Bahamas. (A helpful site for planning a Cuba vacation is the Cuba Tourist Board’s Canadian Web site.

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