Cuba Prepares for 'American Tsunami' of Tourists

Cuba's magnificent Morro Cabanas fortress has stood guard over Havana for centuries while its dungeons below grimly played host to doomed prisoners, both ordinary and political.

Travelers never fail to gaze in awe at the huge stone structure and its lighthouse high up on a rock cliff to the left, the city on the right, as they enter Havana Bay from the sea.

One of the fort's many cannons still sounds at 9 o'clock every evening. In the past it announced the closing of the gates of the once walled city. Today it carries on the tradition, complete with colonial-era dressed soldiers and drummers, torch lights and town criers -- all for the tourists' pleasure. Locals often use the cannon shot to set their watches.

This week, the fort played host to Cuba's annual tourism convention, which unfolded within the fortress walls, complete with tropical dancers, carnival troops and performing children. Tour operators from more than 50 countries watched videos of the island's attractions and haggled with their hosts over blocks of hotel rooms.

Pirates and European fleets no longer threaten from the north, but one could imagine lookouts waiting for the first glimpse of an American cruise ship on the horizon, and imagine the cannon's salute as the first in half a century entered the bay.

With the United States and Cuba engaged in the first steps toward what many believe will be a new relationship after a half century of unremitting hostility, the prospect of an "American Tsunami" of tourists hung over the convention.

The Obama administration has already lifted all restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island, and is under pressure to once more allow academic, cultural, religious and humanitarian exchanges encouraged by the Clinton administration but shut down by the Bush administration.

Antonio Diaz Medina, vice president of Havanatur, the state-run company that handles all U.S. arrivals, said the number of Cuban Americans visiting had increased 20 percent this year.

"The flights from the United States carried about 85,000 last year and so far this year arrivals have been about 40,000," Diaz said.

American Tour Operators Hopeful of More Travel to Cuba

Legislation lifting all travel restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba was introduced in Congress more than a month ago and is given a fair chance of passing later this year.

Italian tour operator Nicholas Delord appeared almost speechless as he pondered the possibility.

"I guess it is OK. You know if they behave and act properly," he said. "There will be more competition and higher prices, but you know the Americans are everywhere."

Except Cuba, that is, which is off-limits to most Americans since the U.S. imposed a trade embargo against the largest island in the Caribbean after Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution.

Among the hundreds of mainly small businessmen and women from Europe, Canada and South America, Cuba's main markets for the 2.3 million tourists who arrived last year, a tall and lanky American named William Hauf was easy to spot.

"Cuba has so many amenities and good things to offer," Hauf, whose Island Travel and Tours brought humanitarian groups to Cuba to build playgrounds until Bush-era regulations all but put him out of business, said.

"We certainly hope President Obama will relax restrictions on nontourist travel by academics and humanitarian groups. That is why I'm here," he said.

A tour operator from Florida, who also brought people to Cuba through 2004, said she sensed the time was ripe to dive in again.

"I am confident that things are going to change sooner or later, and I figured now was the time to reconnect," she said, asking that her name not be used because the U.S. Treasury Department had not given her, and a dozen other Americans who attended the convention, permission.

The Obama administration decided last month to hold off on restoring limited travel rights to nontourist visitors first granted under the Clinton administration's people to people policy, according to John McAuliff of the New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development.

McAuliff, who played a role in the difficult process of restoring relations with Vietnam, said, "We could have brought 100 tour operators here, and next year we will. And if all restrictions are lifted, there will be hundreds, maybe even a special event."

'If They Come, We Will Have Everything Ready for Them'

McAuliff and the other Americans said they supported Obama and were disappointed he had not gone further in opening up travel.

Cuban officials appeared far less concerned, shrugging their shoulders as if to say, "We have survived this long, so a few months or years more makes little difference."

"If they come, we will have everything ready for them. If they need more hotels, more will be built. We are building 5,000 rooms every year, so we are ready," Havantur's Diaz said.

"And it is true more American tour operators are contacting us, in many ways, e-mails, telephone calls and some just walk into my office," he said.

Diaz' company featured a video of its Santiago de Cuba offer at the convention. Cuba's oldest city, located 600 miles east of Havana, is where the American navy destroyed the Spanish fleet in 1898.

"You might want to add Daiquiri, where the Americans landed, San Juan Hill where Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders charged and the Spanish wrecks, still visible off Santiago's coast, to next year's video," I joked, referring to the possible opening of the U.S. tourist trade.

"No problem," Diaz said with a grin. "You know some Americans come down here now, and we often take them step by step through the battles they fought."