The island nation of Cuba is closer to Key West than Miami, but getting there is more difficult then traveling to North Korea or Iran because of an embargo created over five decades ago at the height of the Cold War.
President Barack Obama started the conversation of being friendlier with Cuba in January, when he announced the federal government will be allowing academic, religious and cultural groups to charter to Cuba while still keeping the embargo intact. He hinted about easier travel during a speech at the port of New Orleans in November of last year.
“Keep in mind that when Fidel Castro came to power I was just born, so the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn’t make sense,” said President Obama.
Inching closer, Cuban Americans met in Miami last Saturday to further discuss ending the embargo. A discussion was lead by the group Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ) that was founded to counter Cuban exile groups that support the embargo.
“We want to tell the U.S. and the Cuban governments to find a way to better the lives of the Cuban people, and to let us participate in the economic transformation of Cuba,” said Hugo Cancio, publisher of OnCuba, a Miami-based magazine that just opened an office in Cuba last year.
Miami is known as the adopted hometown for Cuban Americans, but Key West has a deeper history with Cuba. Before the embargo, the islands had close ties.
“We had a ferry and Cuban airline that went from Key West to Cuba prior to the embargo in 1961. The San Carlos Institute used to be the Cuban Council where Cubans and Americans would discuss business and tourists could receive visas,” said Key West historian Tom Hambright. “Key West used to be full of Cuban restaurants and most Conchs have Cuban lineage.”
Tourism with Cuba is already happening and affecting our island nation on the Keys. The first flight in over 50 years happened just recently when a plane took off from Key West International Airport to Havana last month with Key West Mayor Craig Cates aboard.
Photojournalist Larry Benvenuti is already seeing positive impacts of tourism to Cuba. He has visited the nation 21 times, beginning with an intriguing mission trip in 1993 and is extremely knowledgeable on the country. Able to fly there using a press pass, he was able to visit the forbidden land legally and see the encouraging effects of tourism.
“I have a buddy that works for the tourism industry over there and he was able to save $30,000 in tips to buy his family a home. That is an exponential number considered a chemical engineer in Cuba makes $25 a month,” said Benvenuti. “The embargo punishes the Cuban people more than anything.”
Although there is profit to be made in both countries with tourism, Benvenuti said he believes the infrastructure is not quite ready for American tourism yet and it might be a few years till the country can handle it.
“If Americans come there is not enough rooms in the hotels, there is not enough boat slips in the marinas and not enough cars to take them around the countryside,” he said. “When I go there I stay at a family’s home for $30 a night. This couldn’t be done with high volume American tourism.”
Another key element to lifting the embargo is improving U.S.-Cuba political relations.
The Tourist Development Council (TDC) had a meeting Tuesday to discuss the “Cuba Strategic Plan.” The plan was designed to make sure the Florida Keys would protect and expand tourism once and when the embargo is lifted according to TDC director Harold Wheeler.
“The first goal of the plan is to establish an integrative market with Cuba, advertise together. The second is to protect existing businesses in the Keys so that customers aren’t lured away by Cuban offers. We also need to attract new international business to the Keys and generate new businesses,” said Wheeler, adding that airplane and ferry service is a good place to start.
Chief marketing director of Tinsley Advertising, John Underwood, outlined experiences our islands can do together to tap greater into domestic and international markets. He highlighted a few slogans that will be future advertising campaigns:
• “We’re making history again” to highlight Key West and Cuba’s shared history and architecture.
• “So much to catch up on” to promote fishing in Cuba and the Keys.
• “Two nations, one vacation” highlights the close proximity of the islands.
Director of Market Research for TDC, Jessica Bennett, completed a situational analysis entailing gathering information from 1,900 surveys that fit the criteria of 50 million households in America and researching the current state of Cuba using the Euro Travel Monitor.
• Tourism to Cuba is about the same as tourism to Florida.
• Cuba is only at 60 percent occupancy rate.
• Cuba’s top five markets are Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy. (Cuban Americans account for 600,000 visits each year, ranking them in the No. 2 spot, but are not included in the same survey.)
• Two out of five survey respondents said they are interested in visiting Cuba.
• Florida Keys residents have the most interest in traveling to Cuba out of anywhere else in the country.