In the world of travel, the recent decision by President Obama to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba had perhaps its biggest impact on the stock of the major cruise lines, causing them to rise by as much as 7 percent in one afternoon.
Since Cuba does not feature sufficient hotel capacity to house a major new surge of American tourism, only the cruise lines can provide sleeping accommodations and restaurant meals to as many as 20,000 additional tourists at one time (four big boats anchored in the Havana harbor can instantly provide the equivalent of 20 new hotels). And such is the interest by the public in seeing Cuba that cruises to Cuba and the Bahamas from Miami are bound to be successful for many months, following an end to the present travel embargo against Cuba.
On my own trips to Havana as a licensed journalist, I was fascinated to find several giant docks that could accommodate major cruise ships and that have been almost totally unused for – the past 50 years. I’m willing to bet that the cruise lines have detailed plans for instantly jumping into the Cuba market when the travel embargo is eased, as will inevitably happen now that we have resumed diplomatic relations with that country.
Pending that event, there were several modifications to the existing embargo that were announced by the president on the same day that diplomatic relations were resumed – though none of them was of real importance. Starting now, American religious groups can sponsor travel to Cuba; educational exchanges will be encouraged; scholars and students can seek academic credits in travel to Cuba; participation in academic conferences in Cuba will be encouraged; and remittances of $500 per quarter can be made by Americans to non-family Cubans, for the purpose of encouraging startup businesses in Cuba. (A couple of other minor steps were taken, mainly to permit additional airports to be used for charter flights to Cuba.)
None of these really is a major step, but they serve to remind us of the controversial and highly disputed nature of our embargo against travel to Cuba.
The American embargo has always been a somewhat puzzling policy. On the streets of Havana today, as I have witnessed, you see thousands and thousands of Canadian, British, French, German, Scandinavian and Italian tourists, and every other kind of humanity. Only Americans are absent from those streets or from the hotel resorts of Cuba, which otherwise are heavily occupied by people from all over the world. So what do we accomplish by staying away?
Americans can today travel freely to China and Vietnam. We travel freely to all sorts of countries with dictatorial governments. We travel freely to Iran. We even travel freely to North Korea, for heaven’s sake!
A good argument can be made that the ban against travel to Cuba has so angered a large percentage of the Cuban people that it helps – in even a minor sense – to keep the current regime in power. But whether this is so, what good is produced by the embargo? Has it weakened the Cuban regime, or strengthened it? What in the world has it accomplished? Anything?
While the president’s announcement will permit a small number of additional Americans to make trips to Cuba, we still have a long way to go in correcting a policy that achieves nothing of benefit to us – and also is, in my own view, a violation of our political right as free-born Americans to see for ourselves.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.