Threat posed by ‘good’ US tourism to Cuba

The Star Early Edition - - WORLD -

HA­VANA: Cen­tral to US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s plans to peel back his pre­de­ces­sor’s de­tente with Cuba is the idea that there is “good” and “bad” US travel. The US, Trump be­lieves, can tightly reg­u­late Amer­i­can hol­i­days to de­prive the Cas­tro gov­ern­ment of dol­lars and re­di­rect the money to the is­land’s grow­ing class of en­trepreneurs.

But an­a­lysts say it will be dif­fi­cult to pick win­ners in Cuba’s state-con­trolled econ­omy, where gov­ern­ment busi­nesses and the pri­vate sec­tor are thor­oughly in­ter­twined. And even harder will be de­ter­min­ing what sort of travel con­sti­tutes the kind of “peo­ple-to-peo­ple” in­ter­ac­tions the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion says it wants to pre­serve.

By re­in­stat­ing re­stric­tions on in­de­pen­dent trav­ellers, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new pol­icy will hurt Cuba’s emerg­ing pri­vate sec­tor that caters to Amer­i­can vis­i­tors, crit­ics in­sist.

It will herd Amer­i­cans back to­ward the kind of prepack­aged, pre­dictable group tourism that the Cuban gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally prefers – and earns more rev­enue from.

The Trump plan, an­nounced on Fri­day in Mi­ami’s Lit­tle Ha­vana neigh­bour­hood, as­serts that the Obama-era rules fa­cil­i­tated what the White House called “il­le­gal” tourism by al­low­ing US trav­ellers to rent rooms in Cuban homes through sites such as Airbnb.

Amer­i­cans will gen­er­ally still be al­lowed to visit Cuba if they come on cruise ships, or book with US-ap­proved tour agen­cies that en­sure travel itin­er­ar­ies do not in­clude too much un­struc­tured time.

The com­pli­ca­tion for Trump’s rules, how­ever, is large tour groups are too big for smaller B&Bs, and gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed guides tend to ply the well-trod­den routes that by­pass the new gal­leries, restau­rants and night spots opened by en­ter­pris­ing Cubans and oth­ers af­ter the open­ings spurred by Obama.

That, in turn, will cause a rip­ple effect. “If in­de­pen­dent Amer­i­can travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the B&Bs. It’s also the con­struc­tion crews, the pri­vate tour guides, the taxi driv­ers, the restau­rants and the artists sell­ing hand­i­crafts,” said An­drea Gal­lina, an Ital­ian en­tre­pre­neur who last year opened a high­end bou­tique ho­tel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse.

The 1934 man­sion has an Ital­ian restau­rant on the ground floor, and Gal­lina es­ti­mates two-thirds of his guests are Amer­i­can, book­ing rooms through Airbnb, Ex­pe­dia and other US sites.

“To be hon­est, Amer­i­cans don’t have time to go to the beach, be­cause they get ab­sorbed into the city,” he said. “In­de­pen­dent trav­ellers have more con­tact with real Cubans.”

Gal­lina em­ploys 22 Cuban work­ers. If his book­ings de­cline be­cause of a travel crack­down, he said, he will prob­a­bly turn to the Euro­pean mar­ket and “tighten our belts.”

Amer­i­can travel to Cuba has been a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­ground since the early 1990s, when the col­lapse of the Soviet Union left the is­land’s com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment starved for hard cur­rency. As its re­sort in­dus­try grew and more vis­i­tors ar­rived, the Cas­tro gov­ern­ment’s en­e­mies in Mi­ami and in the halls of Congress fought to re­strict Amer­i­cans from go­ing know­ing their dol­lars could un­der­mine ef­forts to choke the Cuban econ­omy.

PIC­TURE: REUTERS

A group of Amer­i­can tourists take a guided bi­cy­cle tour in Ha­vana, Cuba, on Satur­day.

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