Mexico-Cuba Packages Could Open U.S. Travel to the Island
A joint project to develop tourism links between Cuba and Mexico could open the U.S. tour market to the Caribbean island in the form of vacation packages that combine Mexico and Cuba.
The decision by Cuba and Mexico to work together to promote vacations that combine both countries was unveiled at Cuba’s recent 31st International Tourism Fair in Cuba (FITCUBA 2011). FITCUBA is Cuba’s annual international trade event, attracting travel agents and tour operators from 40 countries, including Western Europe and Canada – but not the U.S.
Cuba is the Caribbean’s third most popular destination, according to Cuba’s tourism ministry, and that’s without benefit of travel from the destination’s number one travel market – the U.S. The U.S. market accounts for more than half of the Caribbean’s annual vacation visitors.
Foot in the door
At least one American proponent of opening U.S. travel to Cuba sees the joint promotion with Mexico as a foot in the door for American travelers.
Under the U.S. government’s recently announced guidelines on travel to Cuba, people-to-people programs to Cuba can be operated through tour companies in a third country, according to John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which lobbies for opening travel to Cuba.
“It is clear in the new guidelines that providers in third countries – tour operators in Mexico, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, for example – can sell [Cuba] packages in the U.S.,” McAuliff told Travel Market Report.
This will open up new possibilities for “purposeful travel” to Cuba under the U.S. government’s guidelines allowing Cuba tours that emphasize cultural programs and people-to-people exchanges.
That style of travel [purposeful travel] dovetails with the two-destination approach, said McAuliff, who attended FITUR2011 in Havana.
“My reason for encouraging joint destinations under the U.S. purposeful travel regulations is that for Americans, travel to Cuba can be a very intense experience” – given the history between the two nations and the requirements that Americans engage in cultural tourism on their travels to the island, he said.
Staying at one of Mexico’s Caribbean beach resorts for few days after a tour of Cuba, will help travelers integrate their Cuba experiences and relax afterwards, McAuliff explained.
Mexico-Cuba products could include cruise links between Merida, a popular Mexico part of call on Caribbean cruises, and Havana, Mexico tourism officials told FITUR2011 attendees.
Comments to that effect by Mexico’s Minister of Tourism, Gloria Guevara, and the head of tourist promotion in Mexico’s Yucatan, Jorge Romero, were cited in a press release about the travel trade fair on the Cuban government website, Radio Angulo.
The press release stated that Havanatur S.A. had proposed packages that include Havana and Varadero, Cuba, together with Cancun, the Riviera Maya, Chichen Itza and Quintana Roo.
The Caribbean connection
Joint promotions with other Caribbean destinations could pave the way for opening Cuba to U.S. travelers, while also managing the impact of an increase in Cuba tourism on tourism elsewhere in the Caribbean, McAuliff noted.
“The Cubans are very conscious of the risk to the rest of the Caribbean when Cuba opens to the U.S., and they are trying to soften that impact,” he said.
Indeed, at FITUR2011 the Cuban tourism minister said that the island hosted 2.5 million vacation travelers in 2010, making it the Caribbean’s third largest destination – without open access to the Caribbean’s largest markets in the U.S., which account for over half of the Caribbean’s annual vacation visitors.
McAuliff estimated that about 400,000 Americans visit Cuba now, mainly Cuban Americans. “The question is: how many [more] will go under the new guidelines? My guess is between 70,000 and 100,000.”
Waiting for a reply
He noted that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) still hasn’t issued licenses for people-to-people exchanges; as a result, this summer’s peak travel season will largely be lost.
Travel organizations, including McAuliff’s, applied for licenses to offer travel to Cuba after the Obama administration’s Executive Order in January lifted Cuba travel restrictions put in place under President George W. Bush.
But after the OFAC issued its guidelines in April, McAuliff’s firm and others received letters denying their request for licenses and directing the applicants to reapply under the new guidelines, according to McAuliff.
“We still have not heard” from OFAC, he said. “Essentially, now we have lost the summer and if they don’t start issuing licenses, people will lose the fall and winter.”
On the positive side, undergraduate groups have started to travel to Cuba under the OFAC’s general licenses, which permit unlimited travel for specific educational purposes, McAuliff said.
“If OFAC does issue specific licenses for people-to-people exchanges, you can do an unlimited number of trips.”
The OFAC guidelines, McAuliff said, have the potential to create a more open market than the Clinton administration’s rules, but it depends on how the OFAC will operate under its guidelines.
Please see related stories:
Presidential Order Opens Options for U.S. Travel to Cuba, Jan. 20, 2011
Guidelines Outline New Market Opportunities for Cuba Travel, May 5, 2011.