What an influx of American tourists could mean for Cuba

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Historic JetBlue Flight To Cuba

When JetBlue Flight 387 touched tarmac Wednesday, it marked a historic moment for the U.S. and Cuba.

The plane from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to Santa Clara was the first commercial flight between the two countries in more than half a century, and it heralded a new era of American tourism in the Caribbean nation.

Visitors from the U.S. have 12 ways to justify a trip to the country (including visiting relatives, taking part in academic programs or participating in journalistic or religious activities) and soon there will be six carriers offering 110 flights daily to nine Cuban cities.

After years of Canadians and Europeans enjoying the delights of Cuba, Americans will gradually get to visit en masse too. 91,000 people from the U.S. traveled to Cuba in 2014. By 2015 that figure was 150,000 and it's projected to grow to 1.5 million annually.

The potential influx of U.S. visitors poses several questions though.

Firstly, is Cuba ready? Travel expert Peter Greenberg thinks not. He pointed out on CBS Wednesday that the country only has 60,000 hotel rooms and they're full of visitors from other countries. That woeful figure is emblematic of an unprepared tourism infrastructure, he added, with Wi-Fi, bathrooms, transportation and computer terminals for credit card payments among the aspects that will need to upgrade fast.

The fact that the first flight was to Santa Clara and not Havana was telling too, he said, adding that the Cuban government is splitting the new flights between nine airports as there isn't one hub that can take the increased air traffic.

While cruise ships have been docking in Cuba's ports in increased numbers since Obama restored diplomatic relations in 2014 and travel restrictions have eased, those boats offer beds and meals to their guests. Tourists coming off planes will be on their own.

The finite number of hotel rooms and limited tourist services will mean demand may soon exceed supply and you don't need an economics degree to work out what that will mean for your holiday money.

Airbnb is offering some respite. The company launched in Cuba in April 2015 with 1,000 listings, building on an existing slice of capitalism in the country that saw residents offering home stays or casas particulares to travelers. That figure now exceeds 8,000, the company told Mashable.

Secondly, though, and perhaps more importantly: What will the growing number of U.S. tourists in Cuba mean for the country itself?

Will an influx in visitors from the north herald an era of Americanization in which cheap chicken shops chase away the arroz con pollo joints and the ghost of Hemingway disappears in a steam of skinny lattes?

It crossed many minds when diplomatic relations began to thaw.

Hugh Riley, secretary general and CEO of the Caribbean Tourist Organization voiced similar concerns. "When visitors arrive and they stay and they invest and buy property, they bring with them elements of their own culture," he said. "Is a culture ever impervious to influences from external sources? The answer is an unequivocal no."

RELATED: See Obama's historic trip to Cuba

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President Obama's visit to Cuba
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to cheering fans as he arrives for a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. The crowd roared as President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro entered the stadium and walked toward their seats in the VIP section behind home plate. It's the first game featuring an MLB team in Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles played in the country in 1999. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Cuban President Raul Castro (R) raises US President Barack Obama's hand during a joint press conference at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) (C) while acknowledging members of Congress that are attending a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited Cuba in 88 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R) and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive to the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks with Cuban First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel ahead of the state dinner at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Adalberto Roque / AFP / ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gestures during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/Rodrigo Arangua / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks during an entrepreneurship panel discussion in Havana on March 21, 2016. Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro vowed Monday in Havana to set aside their differences in pursuit of what the US president called a 'new day' for the long bitterly divided neighbors. AFP PHOTO/RODRIGO ARANGUA / AFP / RODRIGO ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: The Presidential motorcade carries U.S. President Obama from the Cuban State Council following a joint press conference on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years.(Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro hold a joint press conference at the Cuban State Council, on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama, who is on a 48 hour trip to Cuba, is the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro delivers a statement alongside U.S. President Barack Obama at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement alongside Cuban President Raul Castro at the Palacio de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Monday, March 21, 2016. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama stands near the Jose Marti memorial after taking part in a wreath laying ceremony in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Ernesto Mastrascusa/LatinContent/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (C-L) and Cuban President Raul Castro (C-R) meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. Cuba's Communist President Raul Castro on Monday stood next to Barack Obama and hailed his opposition to a long-standing economic 'blockade,' but said it would need to end before ties are fully normalized. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama stands with Salvador Valdez Mesa, Vice President of the Council of Ministry, as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) listens to the US national anthem next to the US delegation at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. Obama, meeting Castro for only the third time for formal talks, was the first US president in Cuba since 1928. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama walks up the stairs of the Palacio de la Revolucion to meet Cuban President Raul Castro on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, attends a State Dinner hosted by Cuban President Raul Castro, right, at the Palace of the Revolution, Monday, March 21, 2016, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro greet one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will be sitting down for bilateral talks. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama, right, and first lady Michelle arrive for a state dinner with Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
President Barack Obama greets people in the audience after speaking at an event about entrepreneurship and opportunity for Cubans at La Cerveceria in Havana, Cuba, Monday, March 21, 2016. Obama's visit to Cuba is a crowning moment in his and President Raul Castro's bid to normalize ties between two countries that sit just 90 miles apart. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Cuba's President Raul Casro, left, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama, as they inspect the guard in Revolution Palace, Monday, March 21, 2016. Brushing past profound differences, President Obama and President Castro sat down for a historic meeting, offering critical clues about whether Obama's sharp U-turn in policy will be fully reciprocated. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama waves to journalists next to a painting of President Abraham Lincoln at Havana's City Museum during a visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
President Barack Obama and his daughter Malia smile as the visit a monument of Cuban independence hero Carlos Manuel de Cespedes during their visit to Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. First lady Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha stand at left. Obama's trip is a crowning moment in his and Cuban President Raul Castro's ambitious effort to restore normal relations between their countries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
US President Barack Obama talks to tourists and Cubans at his arrival to the Havana Cathedral, on March 20, 2016. On Sunday, Obama became the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba, touching down in Havana for a landmark trip aimed at ending decades of Cold War animosity. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE / AFP / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks through the the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (R) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (C), first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia, 17, and Sasha, 14, stop to look at a painting of Abraham Lincoln in the Museum of the City of Havana during a walking tour of the historic Old Havana guided by city historian Eusebio Leal (L) March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Obama is the first sitting president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama signs a visitors' book at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Jose Marti monument in the Revolution Palace of Havana next to the Vice-President of the Cuban Council Salvador Valdes Mesa (R) on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ STR / AFP / STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Cuban President Raul Castro pose for photographs after greeting one another at the Palace of the Revolution March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Obama and Castro will sit down for bilateral talks and will deliver joint statements to the news media. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (L) and Cuban President Raul Castro meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on March 21, 2016. US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro met Monday in Havana's Palace of the Revolution for groundbreaking talks on ending the standoff between the two neighbors. AFP PHOTO/ NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 21: President Barack Obama and John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, listen to the playing of the U.S. National Anthem as they take part in a wreath laying ceremony at the Jose Marti memorial in Revolution Square on March 21, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (R), First Lady Michelle Obama (C) and US Charge d'Affaires in Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis meet with US embassy staff in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama arrived in Cuba to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War conflict that turned the communist island and its giant neighbor into bitter enemies. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Air Force One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The plane transporting US President Barack Obama lands at Jose Marti international airport in Havana on March 20, 2016. Obama, who is on a historic three-day visit to the communist-ruled island, flew to Cuba Sunday to bury the hatchet in a more than half-century-long Cold War standoff, but the arrest of dozens of dissidents just as his plane took off underlined the delicacy of the mission. AFP PHOTO/ Yuri CORTEZ / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - MARCH 20: President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and Sasha Obama (R) arrive at Jose Marti International Airport on Airforce One for a 48-hour visit on March 20, 2016 in Havana, Cuba. Mr. Obama's visit is the first in nearly 90 years for a sitting president, the last one being Calvin Coolidge. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Of course, many of those curious first travelers keen for a more authentic experience will inadvertently precipitate in the problem. And while the tourist floodgates are slowly creaking open, U.S. businesses are certainly surveying the untapped market with glee.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the massive multinational with 1,300 properties in some 100 countries, signed three hotel deals in March. The agreement means several state-run hotels will become Starwood stays; in Havana the Hotel Inglaterra will be part of Starwood's Luxury Collection Brand while the Hotel Quinta Avenida will become a Four Points by Sheraton. Marriott's CEO accompanied Obama on his spring trip too.

Many corporate eyes are watching the island; a U.S. plastics delegation, for example, explored options in April. Economist Bill Wood told an industry website: "Having to serve tourists is going to be a great thing. Any time there's commerce, we know that plastics can't be far behind."

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, told Mashable he thinks the threat from more tourism is overblown. "For the past decade, several million tourists from Latin America, Canada and Spain have visited Cuba, many that speak Spanish. Very little impact," he said.

"Tourists do not change a society. Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe 10 years after tourism stopped. If we believe that tourism can change totalitarian societies, we should send tourists to North Korea and Iran."

A more pressing concern, Suchlicki believes, is the fact that tourists' money ends up in the pocket of the military via government-run hotels and restaurants.

"A portion of the tourists' expenditure in Cuba supports the regime and in particular the Cuban military," he said. "Visitors should hope to influence Cuban society politically and culturally and so on. Visits as tourists alone should be avoided."

Luke Waterson, a freelance travel writer who specializes in the Caribbean, told Mashable that American tourism and investment was vital for the country.

"Anything which improves Cuban quality of life towards the standards many of us take for granted is an immensely positive progression," he said. "Cuba's culture is massively complex: There is an already entrenched American influence, but also an African, a Spanish, a Caribbean."

"Cuba's economic outlook, without overseas trade or investment, or without foreign tourism, would be very, very bleak. It is hard to see how such a strong, rich culture could be overly damaged by an influx of North American tourists and it is hard to see how the economy could be anything other than boosted. Of course, it remains to be seen how long it will take for Cubans in the remoter, less-touristy parts of the country to see the resultant benefits, but I believe these will come in time."

Greenberg suggests Americans interested in Cuba wait 18 months to give the nation time to prepare for the influx of visitors and visit some of the other Caribbean islands in the meantime. They'll be suffering from a lack of business and operators will be cutting prices. Islands in the Caribbean see some 70% of their tourism come from the U.S. and places like the Bahamas and Jamaica could be hard hit by the increased interest in Cuba.

Whether anyone will be able to resist the charms of the island for that long, however, remains to be seen.

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