Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ed Perkins On Travel

Congress reconsiders ban on Cuba travel

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cuba -- long off-limits to ordinary U.S. tourists -- may once again become an enticing vacation option. Last month, Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., submitted a bill that would require the administration to allow U.S. citizens to visit Cuba and allow U.S. travel agencies to book them; a similar bill was subsequently filed in the Senate. Both bills reportedly enjoy bipartisan support.

Although the measures represent a potentially major policy change, final implementation is by no means certain. U.S. policy toward all things Cuban has been largely controlled by the Republican power structure in Florida, which is responsive to the fiercely anti-Castro exile community. It remains to be seen whether Congress can come up with enough votes to pass a final bill, and if it does, whether the president will sign it.

Cuba at one time was a highly popular winter vacation destination for U.S. travelers, especially from the Northeast. If you've ever seen "Guys and Dolls," you'll remember that an important element of the plot involved Sky Masterson's bet that he could con the lady from the Save-a-Soul Mission into an evening in Havana (which he did). Until Castro took over the government in 1959, Cuba offered three main appeals to U.S. visitors: a wide-open Havana, with casino gambling and easily available prostitution, both with reputed strong connections to organized crime; the more sedate allure of history, culture and cuisine; and fabulous Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean beaches -- most notably Varadero, about 70 miles east of the capital.

I vaguely remember my parents taking me to Cuba for two weeks when I was 10 or 11, just before World War II. I don't remember much of Havana, but I do remember staying at the only hotel in Varadero, a ramshackle two-story wooden structure. After the war, I clearly remember big-time tourism to Cuba, including nonstop flights from New York to Havana and from Miami to Varadero.

When Castro took over -- and expropriated property owned by U.S. corporations and individuals -- the U.S. reaction was to clamp down on tourism to Cuba. The Bay of Pigs incident resulted in increased restrictions.

Despite losing the U.S. market, Cuba pushed ahead with tourist developments aimed at other visitor sources. Varadero, in particular, has been built up, largely with European-based hotels, into a beach resort complex rivaling those on Spain's Mediterranean coast. Dozens of planeloads, mainly charters filled with visitors from Canada and Europe, arrive there every week: For a look at the development, check out the Web site of Canadian tour operator Sunquest ( Other Cuban beach centers, too, boast world-class tourist accommodations and resorts.

My guess is that if U.S. travel restrictions are lifted, your initial options will be package tours that include air, hotel and transfers. I suspect the Cuban government won't want too many individual U.S. tourists roaming around unsupervised.

Some of you probably believe the United States shouldn't do anything to help Cuba's economy, even through ordinary tourism. You may well continue to hold that belief if Castro dies within the next year or so -- apparently, a distinct possibility. I'm not going to argue with you. But I'm equally sure that lots of other U.S. citizens would welcome a new destination option for warm-water winter vacations, especially one so close. If you're in that camp, keep your eyes on the news -- Cuba may well be available soon.

E-mail syndicated author Ed Perkins at

This article appeared on page E - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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