If Washington lifts travel restrictions, South Florida tourism will have a new competitor 90 miles away
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - At a recent meeting in a Key West ballroom, local tourism leaders didn't just ratify a contingency plan for the day Washington lifts all travel restrictions on Cuba
We're Making History Again would promote tours of historic homes in both Havana and Key West. So Much to Catch Up On is the tag line for a hypothetical fishing tournament off the waters of both islands. And for trips splitting time between both popular tourist spots, The Keys plans this promotional campaign: Two Nations. One Vacation.
Monroe County's updated 10-page "Cuba Strategic Marketing Plan" reflects the growing attention Cuba is getting from Florida's tourism industry. With the White House last week lifting travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, the debate shifted to what could be the next step: allowing all Americans to visit the Communist island.
Politics aside, that possibility has long been a concern for vacation spots in Florida that fear competition from the lush and exotic island. Studies predict as many as two million Americans would vacation in Cuba in the years after the end of travel restrictions.
That potential has the Sunshine State studying how to prepare its top industry for an American tourism boom 90 miles away from its shores.
Visit Florida, the state's tourism board, issued a cautionary report in 2002 that warned one in five Florida vacationers would pick Cuba over the Sunshine State if given a choice. Last week, officials at the tourism board downplayed the threat from a country with fewer hotel rooms than Detroit.
"But it is also safe to say there will be demand by Americans to see an island that has not been available to them for 50 years," Visit Florida President Bud Nocera wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. "We believe that if and when Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, much of that travel will be done from Florida."
The Keys drafted its Cuba plan at the start of the decade, but tourism officials decided to update it recently amid talk Washington might loosen travel restrictions. The new plan cites the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, a federal bill introduced in February that would lift the ban on most Americans spending money inside Cuba.
President Barack Obama has not endorsed the bill, but the planning and speculation continues.
Florida tourism bureaus see Cuba's reputation for poor accommodations as their biggest defense. The island is known for some of the best Caribbean beaches but also barebones service and budget accommodations.
"The service, the food, the restaurants really are as bad as the reputation," said Christopher Baker, author of a Moon travel guide to Cuba and "Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling through Fidel's Cuba." "Its going to be a while before Cuba gets its act together."
Nicki Grossman, head of Broward County's tourism bureau, said she has been encouraged by how few foreign tourists Fort Lauderdale currently loses to Cuba.
"It's very tough to sell Cuba," said Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Every once in a while we'll hear from a Canadian tour operator that their group wants to go Cuba. The next year, they're back to us."
Already the Caribbean's second most popular destination behind the Dominican Republic, Cuba reported a 9 percent increase in foreign tourists last year, welcoming roughly 2.3 million, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
"Florida needs to look to what the future holds for Cuba," Baker said. "A lot of the hotels going in there now are really up there _ four stars."
Sub-par hotel rooms play into The Keys' strategy for sharing in a Cuba tourism boom. The hope is Americans will opt for short trips to Havana, while spending most _ if not all _ of their nights in Key West. That relies on Key West winning authority from Washington and Havana to be a port of entry for Cuba, allowing planes and ferries to make the short trip to the island.
While the ferry docks are ready, Key West officials say they can't apply for permission until after travel restrictions disappear.
"We'll see what happens," said Virginia Panico, the top staffer at the Key West Chamber of Commerce and a visitor to Havana in May 2005 with other business executives. "We've always been talking about it."
© 2009, The Miami Herald.
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