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Cuba: So What Now?

Not only is Cuba's tourism infrastructure way behind the times, the country could not be in a more competitive tourism region; Caribbean nations, some of which rely almost entirely on tourism dollars, have long since written the book when it comes to satisfying every last whim.
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Few people can get the entire travel industry tittering about the same thing at the same time, but President Obama managed to do just that. On December 17, travel news (and just about every other news) reported that that the Cuban embargo, in place for 54 years, will be, as the New York Times put it, "defanged." Exports and banking are expected to increase, and the State Department will begin a review that could see Cuba being removed from a damning list of nations suspected of state-sponsored terrorism. It was quite the event.

For people in the American travel business, it was like a new star had appeared in the sky. When we say "untapped market," it is usually a game of degrees and perception, but Cuba really is just that. However, being a terra incognita can have as many pitfalls as highpoints.

I spoke with Kurt Weinsheimer, VP of Business Development at Sojern, a data-driven performance marketing company for travel, working with the major hotel chains, airlines, car rental companies and who also monitors web traffic to spot trends and other information for its clients. He is in a better position than most to say what Cuba now "means" to travelers.

"What the government did is lessened restrictions on travel to Cuba," says Weinsheimer. "A lot of those restrictions are still in place, but they have lightened the need for pre-approval of that travel, and they also allow it so that there are less restrictions on travel."

In what may be a contradiction to many assumptions, it was never flat-out illegal to visit Cuba. More, the U.S. never really left -- aside from Guantanamo Bay, the grounds of the American embassy in Havana may not have an ambassador on-site, but does house the United States Interests Section. But where legality leaves off, bureaucracy picks up; before December 17, a potential traveler had to meet at least one of 12 criteria that would allow for a visa:

• Family visits
• Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
• Journalistic activity
• Professional research and professional meetings
• Educational activities
• Religious activities
• Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
• Support for the Cuban people
• Humanitarian projects
• Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
• Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
• Certain authorized export transactions

Even better, travelers had to account and document every place they went in Cuba and what they did there because they would be given the third-degree once back in the States. And guess what?

"You still have to officially have one of 12 reasons to go to Cuba," Weinsheimer tells me. "And you still need to document what it is you are doing so if the government does come knocking on your door after that trip, you are able to account all your activity."

In other words, as of now, the restrictions have been relaxed, not removed. The reason for that is because however warm -- or at least, "less frosty" -- American officials are to Cuba, nothing in or about that country's political system has necessarily changed. Throw in residual soreness in Washington's old guard over Castro's rise, and little wonder even a quick read through the "Destination Description" of Cuba on the State Dept.'s website makes for a sobering experience. Cuba is still an authoritarian Communist state, dissidents are still repressed or forced into labor camps, the all-over human rights situation is dismal, and the Cuban illicit sex trade is thriving. But, just to hedge my bets, Cuba is no guiltier of those crimes than, say, China or Vietnam, two nations whom Americans in both government and private business are scrambling to engage and, indeed, already have.

That's the politics involved. Messy stuff. Even getting to Cuba is complicated, because a rare few U.S. carriers fly to the island, most travelers, even those from Miami or Key West, have to stop over in Mexico City or Canada for a connecting flight.

And then there are the realities once on the ground -- Weinsheim observes that even though herds of Canadians and Europeans have been happily shuttling back and forth, embargo or no embargo, he adds that a vacation in Cuba is going to be... rustic.

"People who are looking for the typical 'Caribbean' resort experience may not get as much as they would hope for because a lot of your major resorts have not gone into Cuba yet," he says.

It takes a while to break ground and build a resort and get it up and running, so there is still a lot of time there. There is going to be a two- to three-year process by which Cuba opens up and comes into its own.

Not only is Cuba's tourism infrastructure way behind the times, the country could not be in a more competitive tourism region; Caribbean nations, some of which rely almost entirely on tourism dollars, have long since written the book when it comes to satisfying every last whim and tax bracket. It is not to say there nothing at all in Cuba, Havana and the eastern city Baracoa have plenty of hotels -- European player Meliá is already operating there -- but people expecting five-diamond accommodation with butler service and personalized cigars monogrammed in gold leaf may have to bring the aspirations down a peg.

All that being said, online interest in Cuba continues to grow. Weinsheimer points out that Cuba represents the Caribbean before the tourists got there. That is a significant allure. In the days of Ernest Hemingway, Cuba was the place to be. People want to go; and at the recent New York Times Travel Show, in January, the I found that the Cuba kiosk was jammed. But a close look at the individual vendors turned up another reality of Cuban travel. It was not for "solo" travelers, but tours.

"To manage the logistics and then having everything lined up as far as going for one of the 12 reasons that are allowed," says Weinsheimer.

The vast majority of travel is still being done though private groups that are helping with charter flights or are helping organize different activities you would be doing there, that everything is well monitored, well covered, and well-documented when you do come back.

Sojern and Weinsheimer admit that online interest, and presumably real-world interest, is nowhere near in scale to Jamaica or Puerto Rico. Still, that people are hitting the Internet, asking questions, and doing research suggests that this is not one of those flash-in-the-pan fads that habitually sweep the travel biz.

You've got some beautiful beaches and beach resorts that you can take advantage of. But the biggest thing is culture; it is one of the most amazing islands when it comes to food, when it comes to music, and it is also a unique step back in time.

The fact that it doesn't have a lot of development and growth and so forth, there is a slowness of pace that is a sort of a fun, throw-back experience.

Cuba is here to stay. And it seems that we are all now getting used to it, whatever it is.