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Fabiola Santiago: Appetite for travel tempered by Cuba repression

Fabiola Santiago, Miami Herald on

Published in Op Eds

At the height of the Cuba travel frenzy, unleashed by the restoration of diplomatic relations and relaxed U.S. travel rules, not a day went by without an onslaught of photos on social media of Americanos cruising Havana in antique convertibles and puffing on cigars. The island was pronounced awesome, unique -- a must see. The U.S.-born could buy an instant visa at the airline counter and hop on a plane to Havana for the weekend as if it were the Bahamas.

The rush had airlines and cruise lines salivating at the business opportunity. American, Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier and Silver Airways began flying commercial to the island from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa. And on the seas, Miami-based Carnival Corp. launched the first cruise to sail to Cuba since 1961.

But the bubble is popping.

Despite the start-up fanfare, lofty pronouncements and bargain pricing, the roster of commercial flights to cities throughout the island didn't hold up for more than a few months. Two airlines canceled service, while others cut flights. And, after a year, Carnival is ending its Fathom line cruises to Cuba in June.

"Market conditions failed to materialize," Frontier Airlines explained in corporate speak.

It's Economics 101: supply and demand. And no, despite the cruise ship industry's new spin -- adding Cuba ports of call is being heralded as "the next wave of travel to Cuba" -- it's not going to fix the myriad shortcomings that tempered the initial enthusiasm.

Blame over the lack of greater demand sits squarely with the paranoid and repressive Cuban state, which fails to modernize politically and economically, no matter how much this country and the rest of the world opens up to them. There's no way off the revolutionary hamster wheel that doesn't let Cubans thrive. As I've said before, repression isn't good for business.

In addition, Cuba made a huge strategic mistake in the way it handled the U.S opening.

Cuba banked on American tourists (a miscalculation for many reasons), the friendly Obama administration (term-limited), and a Hillary Clinton win when it should have been courting, not shunning, its base market -- Cuban Americans -- and making it easier for them to return home.

We have the innate interest, the purchasing power and a multitude of reasons -- including solely for the sake of helping fellow Cubans -- to travel to Cuba frequently. Those flights to Trinidad, Cienfuegos or Holguin might have filled up, but we don't have the stomach for repression. And when the Obama administration, for good reason, posted the travel warning that Cuban Americans didn't enjoy rights as U.S. citizens on the island, it was the equivalent of a "Do Not Visit" sign.

On the other hand, while American travel providers were trying to entice customers with competitive pricing, Cuba began charging Europe-sized prices for Third World fare that comes with a heap of propaganda. Add to all that an infrastructure inadequate to handle the 615,000 visitors from the U.S. last year -- and it's not exactly the recipe for repeat visits.

Meanwhile, one thing hasn't changed. Cuba keeps harassing, beating, detaining and jailing political opponents without trial, and when there is one, without a proper defense. A U.S. human-rights lawyer who attempted to help ended up in the slammer.

It kind of tempers the appetite for cultural exchange.

For the past two years, Cuban Americans watched Americans play in our homeland -- and we moved on; so much to see in the world, so little time.

Turns out Cuba could've used our business.

Cuba fatigue. Now it's real for all.

About The Writer

Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may email her at fsantiago@miamiherald.com.

(c)2017 Miami Herald

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