WASHINGTON D.C. (HawaiiNewsNow) - Ever since Washington and Havana began talking about restoring diplomatic relations, tourism industry leaders have been talking about what a hot spot Cuba could be for tourism.
It was, once. Americans flocked to Havana in the 1950s – until Fidel Castro came to power. The son of a wealthy plantation owner overthrew a right-wing dictator in 1959, declared himself a Marxist, and seized all the private property. America recalled its ambassador and for half a century we weren't on speaking terms.
Fidel retired in 2008, his brother Raul became president, and Havana and Washington began quietly sizing each other up for a fresh start. On Friday, the State Department took Cuba off its official list of state sponsors of terrorism – Congress had 45 days to protest and did nothing – and some news agencies think an announcement of full restoration of diplomatic relations could come as soon as next week.
Cuban tourism is a shadow of its former glory: about 3 million visitors a year, mostly Canadians. Cuba has a population of 11.2 million. (Hawaii gets 8 million visitors a year despite some of the highest room rates anywhere. Hawaii has a population of 1.3 million.)
If you're a hotel manager dreaming of a gig in some grand old hotel in Havana, don't count on it. Havana needs significant infrastructure improvements to handle a large increase of visitor traffic. Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson says he thinks the short-term potential for Cuban tourism is far overblown.
Others in the hospitality industry think the best immediate hope for expanded Cuban tourism would be cruise ships, since passengers could make day trips ashore, buying and spending, while using their shipboard lodgings.
A key obstacle is the question of currencies. Should American visitors pay in dollars or pesos? The exchange rate is so lopsided that very high prices in Cuban pesos would be very low in U.S. dollars.
The biggest obstacle, though, is something over which Cuba has no control. During those years when its beautiful hotels were mostly offline to world travelers, they went somewhere else: to other places in the Caribbeans. The beautiful tourist mecca that had been Havana moved to the Bahamas, to Puerto Rico, to the Virgin Islands, to the Lesser Antilles.
A key exception is this: Cuba is a rare locale for ecotourism. This big island has 300 species of birds found nowhere else in the world, including the world's smallest hummingbird, the size of a bumble bee. If tourism in Cuba becomes something more than walking the old quarter in Havana, birders could be the vanguard of future visitors.