Is ending the Cuban travel restrictions what Florida needs right now?

The surprise visit of Obama Administration members to former Cuban president Fidel Castro has suddenly made the world think that the American embargo of the island may be ending soon. Castro, who still pulls the strings in his repressive country, wants to see relations with the U.S. more normalized before he dies. Obama has signaled that lifting the 47-year-old trade embargo may be slow going. But travel restrictions for Americans may start vanishing soon, possibly as soon as this month, when the President visits the (Castro-free) Summit of the Americas. Congress is already agitating for a change through the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act now circulating on the Hill.

A recent study found that by statistical measures, Florida is the second-most miserable state in the country, after Oregon, with 9.4% unemployment, 1 in 214 homes in foreclosure, and 37.3% of debt non-mortgage-related. Florida's industries, which are on the wane right now, need a jolt.

The European Union ended its embargo of Cuba long ago, and the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to end it worldwide. Even the normally immovable Cuban exiles are showing signs of warming to the adoption of looser travel rules. The Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, one of the most powerful groups, now thinks that rather than sanctions, America could best assist the downtrodden of Cuba by directing resources there. This softening is big news because it was resistance from groups such as this one that kept U.S. politicians from loosening the ban until now.

Families in Europe have been vacationing in Cuba's beach resorts for years, flitting as easily to Havana as Sky Masterson and Sarah Brown do in Guys and Dolls. The influx of American tourists would almost certainly be good for the economy of Cuba. But will it be good for Florida?

When it comes to tourism, no one's really sure what will happen. A 2002 study said that in the first year that Cuba opens, 1 million Americans will visit, with the number skyrocketing to 3 million within five years. Many will go through Florida. Considering the state just saw its first tourism decline in seven years and Miami suffered an 11% drop in hotel room rates, that could be a godsend. Yet among opponents to the lifting of Cuban travel restrictions, Florida politicians are amongst the most staunch, since many of them owe their bases to hardline Cuban exiles.

Many of Florida's travel agents are eager to serve the new destination. The major cruise lines, many based in South Florida, will certainly leap upon new rules, since right now, they have to steer around Cuba.

Millions of Europeans visit Florida each year (travel agencies catering to them are claiming they're doing the best business in years), but while their own governments permit them to go to Cuba, the option of flying on to Havana has not been open to them, forcing them to either take a long detour through Mexico or another port, or to decide between America or Cuba for their vacations. If Cuba opens and regular flights begin, it's conceivable that some foreign visitors who would not ordinarily come to Florida may add it into their itineraries. Then again, some visitors will spend less time in Florida than they would have before.

No part of Florida will be more affected than tiny Key West. For years, the island at the end of the southernmost archipelago in Florida, which is closer to Havana than it is to Miami, has gotten tourism mileage out of its strong Cuban links, from touting the old cigar-making traditions to serving some of the best cafe con leche in America. My family spent many years in Key West and we still have close contacts there, and I have spent countless nights standing on the island's southern shore and gazing over the ocean. You can see the corona of lights cast by old Havana, 90 miles away. But you can't go. To Key West, Havana is the Promised Land that has been denied. Soon, though, its gates may be open again. And why go to Key West when you can go to the real Cuba? Will Key West find a new heyday, or will it become a has-been?

Travel restrictions may lift soon, but a lifting of the trade embargo, a bigger economic story, is still well in the future. And whereas it's not clear what effect new rules would have on Florida tourism, other Florida industries are clamoring for change, and their voices are getting louder now, when Florida (with 9.4% unemployment) needs the economic stimulation.

American businesses are chomping at the bit to be let loose in Cuba. Cities with major seaports are itching for full freedom again, and the list of industrial groups that support the lifting of the embargo (including the American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) is testament to the potential for growth. The Florida business world would be the logical hub for selling the deprived country with goods (and exporting American culture until we ruin the culture of the place).

The St. Petersburg Times, in a recent story on the prospects of post-embargo Tampa, predicted that even stores like Home Depot and Costco would benefit, as exiled Cubans would buy D.I.Y. supplies unavailable on the island.

I have personally always bristled at the hypocrisy of a country that tells me I am free and then denies me the right to travel anywhere I choose. I also don't like the hypocrisy of trading with other communist/repressive countries, but not with Cuba, and it's also pretty obvious that the embargo hasn't worked to bring democracy there. Maybe the pressure of millions of Americans inside Cuba each year, plus the dollars they'd spend, is exactly what the country needs.

Travel to Cuba has to happen eventually. Make it now, while Florida's industries are at low ebb and they need new markets and a new future.

Are you a resident of Florida? What do you think full trading and travel permissions with Cuba would do to your pocketbook?
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