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Washington"s travel restrictions have cost US tour companies, travel agencies, airline, hotel and catering chains billions of dollars per year in lost tourism revenues, says hotel consultant Stanley Turkel.

The specialized website Hotel Interactive published Turkel's article Wednesday saying tourism in Cuba has grown an average of 19.3 percent for the past five years, while all of the Caribbean, including Cuba, has experienced growth rates of 4.3 percent during the same period.

The number of visitors to Cuba from other countries (including Canada, Mexico and those in Europe, the Middle East and South America) grew from 340,300 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2005. The number of hotel rooms has more than doubled since 1990 and reached 50,000 by the end of 2005, according to Turkel.

The hotel sector in Cuba is dominated by four main companies - Gran Caribe, Cubanacan, Gaviota and Habaguanex. The exponential growth in room availability over the past decade has been made possible through joint ventures primarily with Gran Caribe, Cubanacan and a number of non-American international partners.

There are currently 24 joint venture companies which have 11,900 rooms under development, and 3,700 currently in operation. Currently Sol Melia (Spain), Super Clubs (Jamaica), Accor (France), Barcelo (Spain) are the main international companies in joint venture agreements to manage properties in Cuba.

Turkel recalls that in the 1950s, Americans flocked to Cuba, accounting for 89 percent of the total number of visitors to the island, and 32 percent of total US arrivals to the Caribbean region. At its peak in 1957, Cuba attracted 272,265 American tourists.

By 1960, however, a year after the revolution, this number dropped to 61,098 and dwindled to almost zero over the next two decades due to the ban established by Washington on travel to the island since then.

Mostly after 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, tourism was embraced as an economic lifeline and means of generating much needed foreign currency, indicates the consultant.

Despite the US ban on tourism, says Turkel, Cuba became a hot destination for US tourists. It is estimated that 150,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2000. However, the Bush administration has tightened restrictions on US travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit only once every three years and clamping down on trips by US academics.

The author describes as "absurd" the travel ban on Cuba and highlights that the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) long has backed freedom of travel to Cuba and elsewere as a basic human right.

Remembering the trip taken by the author to the island in 2000, Turkel said that the weeklong trip included beaches, sun, live music, farms, schools, reforestation projects, hospitals, historic forts and old Havana complete with a display of restored classic automobiles.

The relative scarcity of automobiles and combustion engines offers clear vistas and easy breathing. Cuba"s per capita CO² output is one-tenth that of the US.

In Cuba, professionals are linked with colleagues throughout the world via the Internet, entrepreneurial businesses are increasing, All signs point to the tourism industry continuing its vigorous growth with European and Canadian tourists.

Turkel ends quoting Thomas J. Donahue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce saying "there"s a growing sense in the business community that if we"re going to trade with North Korea, Vietnam, Russia and some countries in the Middle East, why aren"t we trading with Cuba? People are asking fundamental questions about a policy that"s clearly illogical", affirms Donahue.

Source: Prensa Latina

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