- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

MIAMI — Maria Aral's charter flight company gets calls from Americans eager to book a trip to Cuba whenever Congress debates an end to the ban on U.S. travel to the island nation.

"Everybody assumes that we could go," said Mrs. Aral, vice president of ABC Charters. The company, which charges about $300 for a round-trip Miami-Havana flight, must explain to would-be travelers that discussion alone isn't enough to end the long-standing restrictions.

But ABC and other tourism companies and state and local officials are preparing for the day when U.S. citizens might be free to travel to the island that is only 90 miles from Florida.

Since 1963, most Americans have been prohibited from visiting Cuba. Only people with relatives in Cuba, U.S. government officials and professionals such as journalists and doctors can make the trip. President Bush said earlier this year that a substantial softening of U.S. policy would come only after the communist government of President Fidel Castro is out of power.

When that day comes, Florida officials hope for a jump in tourism.

The state's tourism-marketing agency, Visit Florida, commissioned a survey that found many people who want to visit Cuba would prefer to combine a weeklong trip to Florida with a short excursion to the island. Fewer than one in 10 would skip the state altogether to visit Cuba.

But some parts of the state for example, the Florida Keys fear they could lose business to Cuba because of the island's proximity. Key West is closer to Havana than to Miami.

Harold Wheeler, who heads the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, said his group has created a plan to market trips to Cuba as an ideal side trip from the Keys, and vice versa. He expects Cuba's current lack of enough high-quality hotels would help keep the Keys as the main destination.

"We realize there's going to be a great curiosity to go to Cuba," Mr. Wheeler said. "The key is how we position ourselves."

One approach, he said, is for Key West to promote cultural and sporting aspects it shares with Cuba. For example, literary fans in Key West for the annual Ernest Hemingway celebration could speed over to Cuba for a day to visit the writer's former Havana hangouts. Avid fishermen could try their luck in waters off the Keys and Cuba.

Carnival Cruise Lines has looked at the possibility of sailing to Cuba and would consider it an excellent opportunity if the travel restrictions were lifted, said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for the Miami company.

But the world's largest cruise line would not add Cuba as a destination immediately after the ban, preferring to wait for the country to develop its tourism infrastructure as well as its democratic political system, she said.

Tourism officials in Miami would not discuss specifics of their plan to promote post-ban tourism.

But unlike officials in the Keys, they don't appear concerned about losing business.

They said they expect to keep visitors coming by touting Miami's reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan area that has miles of tropical beaches.

"The kind of client that we now attract in Miami is very much an upscale client," said William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That's not the clientele that's going to want to go to Cuba."

He pointed out that it took almost 10 years to transform Miami Beach from a rundown swath of oceanfront land into a swank city of luxury hotels and fashionable nightclubs and restaurants.

Cuba would need decades and billions of dollars to do the same, he said.

Because of its big head start in developing tourism, Florida is unlikely to lose its overwhelming edge as a travel destination.

In 2001, 69.8 million people visited Florida, according to Visit Florida.

During the same period, Cuba had about 1.8 million visitors, with the largest percentage about 350,000 people coming from Canada, according to Cuba's Tourism Ministry.

While Canadian tourists are free to travel to Cuba, they have mixed feelings about vacationing there, said Ellen White, president of the Canadian Snowbird Association.

"People who go away [to Florida] in the winter would love to fly over to Cuba for a weekend," she said, but Cuba's lack of modern hotels and amenities is a drawback.

"My husband wouldn't want to go they have only one golf course," she said.


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