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"So Much to Catch Up On" is the tagline for a hypothetical fishing tournament off both islands. And for trips splitting time between the two popular tourist spots, the Keys plans this promotional campaign: "Two Nations. One Vacation."

Florida's 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 month 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 2 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 from its shores.

The state's tourism office, Visit Florida, issued a 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 last month. "We believe that if and when Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, much of that travel will be done from Florida."

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 travel guide to Cuba.

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.

Source: Chicago Tribune

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