U.S. weighs opening travel to Cuba

News from Cuba | Saturday, 3 April 2010

By Jonathan J. Levin, Bloomberg News

Cuba's hotels could manage a sudden influx of 1 million American tourists if Congress lifts its 47-year ban on travel to the communist island, Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said.

Additionally, the Caribbean nation is set to expand its capacity of about 50,000 rooms, with groundbreaking scheduled for least nine hotels this year, according to Marrero. About 200,000 rooms may be added in the "medium to long term," he added. Cuba also is seeking investment partners for 10 golf courses and luxury hotels aimed at Americans.

"I'm convinced that today, with the available capacity, we could be receiving the American tourists without any problem," Marrero said in an interview recently in Cancun, Mexico, where he was attending a conference of 40 American and Cuban tourist industry representatives.

The tourism meeting came as Congress considers a law that would lift the ban on travel to Cuba. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of 38 co-sponsors of the bill, said he has 60 votes lined up to win passage of the measure this summer. Similar legislation introduced in the House has 178 co-sponsors and needs 218 votes to pass if all 435 members vote.

"This is a 50-year-old failed policy," Dorgan told the meeting by phone from Washington. "Punishing Americans by restricting their right to travel just makes no sense at all."

President Barack Obama has said he seeks a "new era" in relations with Cuba even as he denounced "deeply disturbing" human rights violations by its government. He did not say where he stands on lifting the travel ban.

Obama last year ended restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba and transferring money to relatives there. The U.S. State Department also held talks in Havana with Cuban officials about restoring mail service and cooperation on migration issues.

Tourism to Cuba increased 3.5 percent amid the global financial crisis to 2.4 million visitors last year, with 900,000 visitors from Canada leading the way, according to Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director for the Tourism Ministry.

Bisbe expects foreign arrivals to grow by a similar amount this year. If the U.S. travel ban is lifted, hotels won't be overburdened because Americans will visit year round and face capacity problems only during the winter high season, when occupancy reaches 85 percent, he said.

"Havana has been the forbidden city for so long that it will be a boom destination even in the low season," Bisbe said.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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