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Tourism ‘heart’ of Cuba’s economycomment (0)

February 7, 2008

By Shaley Fabris

In the mid-1990s tourism in Cuba surpassed sugar as the primary source of foreign exchange. Tourism is now viewed as the “heart of the economy.” More than 2 million tourists visited Cuba in 2004, generating billions in revenue.
The 1961 U.S. trade embargo on Cuba prohibits financial transactions with a Cuban entity, placing obvious restrictions on travel for Americans. However, travel is allowed to Cuba from the U.S. under certain conditions. These do not include tourist-related activities, and the U.S. State Department Web site warns strongly against travel to this region.

The U.S. has no embassy in Cuba, but the U.S. Interest Section (USINT), under the legal protection of the Swiss government, represents the U.S. government in Cuba, and the staff provides consular services.
In spite of restrictions, many Americans travel to Cuba every year. In “National Geographic Traveler: Cuba,” author Christopher Baker says, “Visitors from the United States are now third in numbers behind Canadians and Germans” and “almost every U.S. citizen can travel legally as a member of ... a licensed group.”

However, travel advisories and warnings should be considered and can be found on the State Department Web site. Here, they warn that “Americans visiting Cuba should be aware that any encounter with a Cuban could be subject to surreptitious scrutiny by the Castro regime’s secret police” and that even interactions with Cubans by well-intentioned Americans “can subject that Cuban to harassment and/or detention.”
The State Department has issued a specific warning against travel to Cuba through a third country using prepaid tour packages. These tours are set up with the idea that they are circumventing U.S. restrictions, but are still illegal.

The attempted hijacking of several aircraft and ocean-going vessels by Cubans in 2002 and 2003, inadequate security at satellite airports, reports of child abductions, shipwrecks, and an increase in minor crimes against Americans have led the U.S. government to issue travel advisories. Also, any citizen traveling to Cuba is subject to that country’s laws. This can cause problems, even for tourists who do not engage in any illegal activity.
For example, any person involved in a car crash, or even witnessing one, can be held by the Cuban government until the investigation is completed.

All travel from the U.S. to Cuba must be licensed by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). General travel licenses are granted under six different categories, including travel for journalists and full-time professionals on official business.

Specific licenses may also be granted for people visiting immediate family members in Cuba, for students traveling to Cuba for certain educational activities, and for individuals traveling under the auspices of a religious organization. 

Upon entering the country, tourists will be greeted both by the warm and inviting people of Cuba and by a land of varying geography and stunning landscapes. Rolling plains cover most of the country, but rugged hills and mountain ranges dominate the southeast.

August to November is hurricane season, and the country has about one hurricane every other year. Generally, the climate is tropical with the dry season from November to April and a rainy season from May to October.

Beautiful beaches
The bays and beaches of Cuba are some of the most beautiful in the world. They are the main draw for tourists just as they were when many Americans flocked to Cuba for their vacations in the 1950s. While modern hotels are available in the cities, visitors to the less popular tourist regions are able to rent rooms in many Cuban homes, called “casas particulares.” Good food can be found in these Cuban homes, as most restaurants in Cuba are government run and the food notoriously bland.

In addition to the beautiful lands and waters of Cuba, tourists can hope to experience, through eco-tourism, many unusual species of plants and animals. According to National Geographic, on the island of Cuba, there are “so many endemic species that biologists can hardly keep count.” Cuba is referred to as “another Galápagos, preserved by its lack of development and by the will of a people committed to conservation.”

Religious sites
Religious tourism is also popular in Cuba. In the colonial city of Trinidad, one can visit the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad (Church of the Most Holy Trinity). The imposing Havana Cathedral, begun by Jesuits in 1748, was constructed partially from coral in which one can see fossils of marine life. The largest Catholic cathedral in Cuba is the Basilica of El Cobre (The Copper Cathedral). Visitors leave donations of odds and ends, some of which are hung on the wall as decorations, such as a saxophone hanging beside a large crucifix. Many donations are stored in Plexiglas cases to protect the items, which include original Barbie dolls and Beetles records.

As tourism to Cuba increases, much work is being put into building new tourist facilities, renovating historic structures, and improving existing hotels and other tourist sites.
However, some worry that unrestricted and unregulated tourist-related building and clearing of land will have a negative impact on the natural resources of the country.
In anticipation of these impacts, the Cuban government established a Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA) in 1994 and began passing a series of laws and policies to protect the environment and ensure that tourism building is sustainable.
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