With an estimated 38 million Americans traveling on Memorial Day weekend, 2.6 million of them by air, their attention is focused on how just hard it will be for them to get where they’re going.
We’re not focused on long TSA lines, but on another obstacle that can still trip up travelers – the fact that tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited under U.S. law – and why repealing this obnoxious restraint on our freedom to travel (as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina have proposed) is a big priority that can also move the normalization process along.
During the last seven years travel to Cuba has gotten a lot easier. President Obama took all restraints off Cuban-American family travel in 2009; he restored people-to-people (non-tourist) travel in 2011; and this year, he struck an agreement with Cuba to restore commercial aviation service, and he’s given individuals the right to visit the island without signing up for a group (and a minder) so long as they stick to the people-to-people rules and eschew tourist activities when they go.
With every reform, U.S. travel to Cuba increased steadily. But, following the December 17th, 2014 announcement that our two countries would resume diplomatic relations, visits to Cuba really took off. In 2015, for example, trips by Americans to Cuba jumped 77 percent over 2014, and by 94% in the first quarter of 2016 over the same period last year.
By one metric, Google searches, it’s reasonable to conclude the surge will continue. Last month, iQuanti, a data-driven marketing firm, released a study showing that 7 million searches relating to Cuba travel took place in the U.S. from March 1, 2015 – February 29, 2016. If a fraction of the Googlers move from search to making arranging flights and lodging, the U.S. travel numbers will just keep rising. Why, we even read this week that Nixon’s going to Cuba (Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. Sorry, we couldn’t resist).
This is all good news for Cubans who are longing to see the benefits of their country’s rapprochement with the United States. With more travel, they will. As Arch Ritter explained on his Cuban Economy blog this spring, travel increases mean more foreign exchange earnings for the country (it’s how Cuba’s government pays for imported food), a construction boom for tourism facilities (more jobs, better wages for more Cubans), and a “major increase in incomes for the growing private sector servicing tourism.”
This trend doubtless contributed to Cuba’s decision this week to legalize small and medium-sized businesses. It ups Cuba’s commitment to self-employed business owners interested in building bigger enterprises and may convey new rights, such as the ability to import wholesale supplies or export products. Simply put, as demand coming from U.S. tourism rises, Cubans have greater opportunities to live independently and earn more take home pay.
The Cuba travel trends are also creating jobs in the U.S. and offering opportunities to U.S. businesses on the island. Think of what well-known U.S. brands can now do: Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile are serving customers roaming around Cuba; Airbnb is booking rooms in bed and breakfasts for U.S. travelers; Marriott and Starwood have been granted permission to manage Cuban hotels.
These developments in turn are creating virtuous circles for our politics and, importantly, for the Flake and Sanford bills mentioned above. In polls testing U.S. public opinion on the question of legalizing travel, support is really high for getting rid of travel restrictions: nationally (82% in the CBS News survey); regionally (58% of voters in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in the Atlantic Council survey); and among the Cuban American diaspora (at 3:00 p.m. today, El Nuevo Herald was reporting 56% support for travel!).
Jobs in Cuba and the U.S., coupled with high public support across the country – these are factors that Members of the U.S. Congress can’t ignore. Even opponents of President Obama and supporters of the embargo are finding the political space to move, even if incrementally. Take Members of Congress like Rep. Bill Keating, who signed a letter with his Massachusetts delegation colleagues supporting U.S. approval of JetBlue flights from Boston to Havana.
Others are being bolder. Rep. Mark Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act now has 126 cosponsors, a high-water mark for his legislation. Senator Flake’s bill to legalize travel is now supported by 51 Members of the U.S. Senate, a majority, as our allies at Engage Cuba announced this week. This happened after Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Steve Daines of Montana climbed aboard, and they represent fairly conservative states. Small wonder our friends at Progreso Weekly believe “Unrestricted Cuba travel getting closer,” but we’re not there yet.
Getting more cosponsors on these bills is an investment in a better Cuba policy that will pay off in two ways. It will prompt Congress to act to repeal the travel ban, whenever it decides to start legislating again, and embolden policymakers to get behind the next obvious step, getting rid of the embargo for good.
This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »