Ismat Sarah Mangla writes about what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Cuba trade mission may mean for the US travel industry. Among the opportunities, the author mentions travel through U.S. airlines (in particular, JetBlue) and rentals through companies like Airbnb.
Among the members of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s high-profile trade delegation to Cuba, which arrived in Havana on Monday, is JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes, whose company also happened to charter the plane that flew Cuomo, bigwigs from several New York corporations and a gaggle of reporters down to the island nation.
That’s not unfamiliar territory for JetBlue; the airline is the leading U.S. carrier to destinations in the Caribbean and has expanded its charter flight service to Cuba since President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions between the U.S. and the Communist island in January. But Hayes’ presence represents more than just his airline’s interest in adding routes, including scheduled commercial ones, to Cuba: It’s emblematic of the U.S. travel industry’s desire to break back into Cuba in a big way.
It’s a lucrative prospect. Roughly half of the U.S. population is within a four-hour flight of Cuba — and before the Cuban Revolution, the tropical nation was a haven for American tourists seeking a getaway full of sunny days and casino- and music-filled nights. In fact, many hotels on the island were owned and operated by Americans (including a significant organized crime element), said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and co-author of “Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.” The Habana Libre, one of Cuba’s larger hotels, started out, in fact, as the Habana Hilton.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, 10 to 15 years from now, there will be 30 or 40 million Americans vacationing in Cuba every year,” said Mauro Guillen, a management professor at the Wharton School of Business, who recently planned the Cuba Opportunity Summit in New York City. And American businesses are itching to get those tourism dollars, experts say.
Of course, that will depend on the United States lifting its trade embargo against Cuba. While Obama’s recent Cuba policies have gone a long way in thawing relations between the two countries and have made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba if they fall into one of 12 authorized categories, there is still a general ban on Americans doing business there.
[. . .] “They’re laying the groundwork. U.S. business representatives have been traveling to Cuba for the last few decades in anticipation of doing business when the embargo is lifted, getting to know Cuban officials, establishing relationships,” said LeoGrande.
Still, the exceptions Obama has made through executive order have allowed pockets of the U.S. travel industry to exploit opportunities in Cuba. The number of tour companies offering educational trips to Cuba has exploded since December, thanks to the new policies that eliminate the need for such companies to get licensed by the U.S. government. Further, the president has licensed American businesses to trade with Cuba’s private sector. That’s how home rental powerhouse Airbnb has been able to gain a foothold in the country. [. . .]
[Photo above: The historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba is seen in the early morning in Havana, Cuba. Joe Raedle/Getty Images.]