The opening of Cuba to U.S. travelers has been a major focus of the Obama administration since the December 17, 2014, announcement that it would normalize relations with the island nation.
Embassies have now opened in both countries, while tour operators and cruise lines gear up to capitalize on the expected rush of American tourists. Pro-travel lobbyists have been working for years behind-the-scenes to encourage the Obama administration to take on the challenge of restoring relations with Cuba.
“The challenge has been that no one thought this issue was going anywhere for two decades,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “By going so big, President Obama made it so every office in Congress had to start thinking about Cuba again.”
Engage Cuba is a non-profit public policy group with goals shared by a variety of organizations across several business sectors.
Williams was on hand for the recent flag-raising ceremony, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, at the site of the new American embassy in Havana.
The imprimatur of the Obama administration has allowed lobbyists to band together with NGOs and other corporate interests to advance the cause of opening travel to Cuba.
“The Cuba lobby had tried to intimidate people away from the issue in the past, saying no one touches Cuba or your career is over,” said Williams. “President Obama called that bluff and it is universally seen as going well for him politically.”
According to Williams, Airbnb has been a major beneficiary of the legal changes instituted so far; it doesn’t suffer any of the red tape hotel brands will face in entering the Cuban accommodations market.
“Airbnb has been one of the companies uniquely able to take advantage of the legislative changes,” said Williams. “One of the founders of Airbnb told me it got more [publicity] for its launch in Cuba than it did for the original launch of the company.”
The next step is pushing new legislation through the next session of Congress to lift travel and trade bans.
A major impediment to change remains a contingent of House Republicans who are either opposed to all policies supported by President Obama or have hunkered down as their conservative peers began to support Obama’s policies. President Obama is expected to veto any restrictions on Cuban travel they may attempt to pass.
Part of Engage Cuba’s current legislative goal is to change the restrictions that limit tour operators to running large-group people-to-people tours. It is pushing for the availability of individual licenses.
“It really meets the intentions of what the President is trying to do: foster connetions between real people,” said Williams. “On people-to-people tours, you self-segregate by eating in private rooms and traveling on conspicuous buses full of 40 tourists. But if there’s just two of you on the trip, you’re going to talk to new people and engage with normal Cuban.”
Allowing U.S. airlines to operate more freely in Cuba is also a priority.
In Havana, the focus is on facilitating the involvement of American businesses in the Cuban economy. Building these ties will help speed the Congressional action in the U.S.
While Engage Cuba has been active since June, other groups representing members of the travel industry have been working for years to advocate the expansion of travel to Cuba.
“There was no movement at all and all of a sudden it exploded in December,” said Eben Peck, vice president of government affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). “This is one of the Obama administration’s legacy issues, they want to move the needle on this issue and change the relationship with the government of Cuba.”
The group’s members have seen a renewed focus on international travel; 60 percent of sales made by its agent members are for international trips, up from 40 percent a decade ago.