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Florida Keys Tourism Officials Know They'll Face Big Competition Just 90 miles Away
When and If Americans Are Again Allowed to Vacation in Cuba
By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Jan. 22, 2007 - Should Washington lift its travel ban on Cuba, Florida Keys tourism director Harold Wheeler knows Americans will flock to the island. So he has a slogan ready: "Two Nations. One Vacation."

The motto captures a broad strategy by the Keys to defend its tourism industry against future competition from a destination that last year ranked as the Caribbean's No. 2 vacation spot. The hope is to tap into Americans' curiosity in the long-forbidden destination and encourage them to include a stop in the Keys in their Cuban vacation.

"With all the curiosity, people are going to go," said Wheeler. "But our thought is they might not be satisfied with the hotels and the infrastructure that is there. So they might want an alternative place to stay."

The Keys' strategy, outlined in a 2002 marketing plan, offers a window into Cuba's potential as the United States' next big vacation destination.

PURELY ACADEMIC

At the moment the discussion is academic because President Bush has vowed to veto any effort to water down the 1963 travel ban on Cuba or the broader economic embargo against the island.

Still, the Democratic takeover of Congress has emboldened some anti-embargo forces, who point to a 2003 bill to strip enforcement funding from the travel ban that passed both Houses before it was killed by Republican leaders.

Proponents of a hard line toward Cuba say they aren't worried.

"The fight will continue on these collateral matters. But we're not going to lose," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.

MAJOR COMPETITOR

But there's little doubt Cuba -- already popular among Europeans and Canadians -- will eventually emerge as a competitor to the U.S. tourism industry. It attracted roughly 2.3 million tourists last year, second only to the Dominican Republic's 3.6 million tally.

A University of Colorado study predicted in 2002 that nearly 1 million Americans would visit Cuba the first year it was opened to the United States -- rivaling both Puerto Rico and Jamaica as tourism draws.

The report said travel would soar to 3 million Americans by the fifth year, a potential flood that has tourism officials throughout Florida worried.

Also in 2002, Visit Florida produced a report warning that interest in visiting Cuba was growing among Florida tourists and that one in five would pick Cuba over the Sunshine State if given the choice.

"People want what you can't have," said Dale Brill, Visit Florida's marketing chief. "And when what you can't have is made available, it's going to have immediate appeal."

But some experts say that even with white-sand beaches and colonial charm, Cuba's government-run hotels and crumbling infrastructure will limit its appeal.

"They can't handle a whole lot more" tourism, said Joseph Scarpaci, a Virginia Tech professor who recently returned from his 45th Cuban trip. "And they aren't handling what they have very well."

Janet Moore, a travel packager in California, doesn't see it that way. She used to send alumni groups and museum members on tours of Cuba under a short-lived exclusion of the ban for educational trips, and she remembers the island fondly.

"It was warm, and the rum was wonderful," Moore recalls. "The nights are balmy, and the Cubans are hanging out on the street. And there's this wonderful architecture."

Cuban postcards like that one have Key West business leaders plotting their economy's role in a post-embargo Cuba.

CHANGES TO ABOUND

From concerns of a clogged A1A highway as tourists flock to Havana-bound ferries to the use of Cuban migrants to alleviate the Keys' labor shortage, the island chain predicts big changes should Washington open up commerce with the communist nation.

Virginia Panico, president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, met with government tourism officials in Havana in May 2005. Joined by a delegation of Chamber members (the group delivered medical supplies under an exclusion of the travel ban for humanitarian missions), Panico said they discussed luring vacationers to both destinations.

"We told them we are prepared to do pre- and post-packaging -- three nights here, two nights there, or vice versa," she said.

The Keys' plan for an open Cuba also envisions piggy-backing on the island's newfound popularity. Among the ideas: a "Keys Plus Cuba" section on the website, tours of historic homes in both Key West and Havana and marketing joint fishing tournaments under the slogan "So Much to Catch Up On."

"We've done our homework," Wheeler said. "We're prepared."

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Miami Herald

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