|By Lesley Clark, McClatchy
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December 17, 2009 --WASHINGTON -- Major U.S. travel operators gathered in a downtown Washington hotel Wednesday to listen to a pitch for business from Cuban government officials, who appeared on a giant screen via the Internet from Havana to tout the island.
The meeting -- which one of its organizers said was a first -- came as travel companies eagerly eye congressional efforts to lift the restrictions that prohibit most Americans from traveling to Cuba.
The operators watched promotional videos of tourists frolicking in the surf, lounging on sugar-white beaches and exploring old Havana. They asked Cuban officials when they'd be ready for what the president of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, Bob Whitley, called a "mass rush" of American tourists, should the ban be scrapped. Whitley's group sponsored the event along with the National Tour Association.
"We are ready the first minute," Miguel Figueras Perez, a senior adviser to Cuba's Ministry of Tourism, told the group. "Let us know, please."
Figueras provided a travelogue for the operators, pointing out the Floridita restaurant, the "place where Ernest Hemingway preferred to have his mojitos," and telling them that tourists in Cuba could "rent a car, you can go anyplace you wish."
He said that Cuba was safe, that there were "no drugs, no vices, no crimes against tourists" and that "no one is crazy to kidnap a bus with tourists."
The event came as Cuba has refused to give the State Department access to an American contractor who was detained in Havana on Dec. 5 after handing out cell phones and laptops to Cuban dissidents.
Kirby Jones of Alamar Associates, a Washington group that backs trade with Cuba, said he didn't expect the incident to affect efforts to ease the travel ban.
"There's always political issues and there always will be, but work goes on," Jones said.
Supporters of the travel ban contend that lifting it would only further enrich and entrench the Castro government, which controls most aspects of Cuba's tourism sector.
Jones asked the Cuban officials about complaints from some supporters of the travel ban that Cubans on the island aren't allowed to stay in hotels there. Figueras said it wasn't true.
He said Cuba had built more than 100 hotels in the last two decades, as tourist arrivals jumped 11 percent each year. He noted, however, that it took the island 30 years to get back to the volume it had enjoyed before the Eisenhower administration broke off relations with Cuba in 1961. Figueras said Cuba was looking to build 30 more hotels with 10,000 rooms over the next five years, but he acknowledged that it needs more golf courses.
He said the country estimated that since 1961, the travel ban had prevented 30 million Americans from visiting Cuba, at a price tag of $20 billion. He quoted congressional testimony from the American Society of Travel Agents to estimate that 1.8 million Americans would visit Cuba if the restrictions were lifted. He said that it could mean more than $1 billion for U.S. airlines, tour operators and travel agencies.
Whitley, who said his group passed a resolution in 1981 that advocated "open borders," said American tourists were eager to travel to Cuba.
"Americans want to see Cuba. They really, really want to see it," he said. "Every cruise ship that leaves Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the market is going to demand a port of call include Havana."
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