Thursday, April 17, 2014

U.S. is Cuba's No. 2 source market after Canada, study finds

By Gay Nagle Myers
Blue CarThe number of U.S. visitors to Cuba continues to rise, placing the U.S. market as the second-largest source of visitors to Cuba after Canada, according to a recent study by the U.S.-based Havana Consulting Group.

In the first quarter of 2014, 173,550 visitors from the U.S. traveled to Cuba on 1,048 flights from Miami and 109 from Tampa.

By comparison, England, Germany and France each had fewer visitors to Cuba for all of 2013.

The U.S. Q1 2014 visitor total topped the quarterly record of 159,450 U.S. visitors, set in the last quarter of 2013, according to data issued by Cuba's National Office of Statistics and Information.

"The push in the first trimester has been huge," said Emilio Morales, president of the consulting group. "Data confirms, although the Cuban government does not recognize it publicly, that the United States, even with the effect of the embargo, is the second greatest source of tourists to Cuba after Canada.

"We anticipate that 2014 will be a record year in the number of flights and U.S. passengers to Cuba," he said.

Canada remains the No. 1 country of origin for travelers to Cuba, sending 1.1 million visitors to explore Havana and environs in 2013, up 3.2% over 2012.

But the number of U.S. travelers has risen quickly, up from approximately 245,000 in 2007 to nearly 600,000 last year, according to the study. "To continue the current rate, the number of U.S. visitors could easily exceed 650,000 this year," Morales said.

Of last year's total, 470,732 were Cuban Americans visiting relatives, while 26,298 were returning Cubans and 102,396 were academics, lawyers, businessmen and travelers on cultural exchanges, such as the people-to-people programs.

On average, Cuban-American travelers spend approximately $3,200 per person during their stay, accounting for a major source of revenue for the economically strapped island.

The rapid growth in the U.S. market over the last seven years, even with the embargo still in place, reveals that the U.S. has the potential to become the top source market, according to Morales.

This scenario could change in the coming years "if the U.S. government enables some exceptions and allows tourism to Cuba under more flexible conditions," according to the study.

The continuing increase in U.S. travel to the Communist-run island comes five years after the Obama administration loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba.

In 2009, President Obama lifted a limit put in place by former President George W. Bush allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba no more than once every three years to visit relatives.

In 2011 the U.S. reinstated the people-to-people trips, enabling U.S. citizens to participate in educational activities that promote contact with Cubans in various walks of life.

Havana is the top destination for most U.S. travelers on group trips with licensed, authorized operators, followed by Santa Clara, Camaguey and Cienfuegos.

Licensed operators offering people-to-people programs reported a strong first quarter and are optimistic going forward.

Insight Cuba, for one, had a record first quarter, and company president Tom Popper noted that November and December tours are booking ahead of schedule.

Friendly Planet Travel, meanwhile, has added a third people-to-people program this year.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.

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