It's too soon for Americans to plan a Cuban vacation of beach, mambo and mojitos, but the U.S. travel industry is gearing up for a return to its largest Caribbean destination before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
Tour operators held a video conference with Cuban tourism officials in Havana on Wednesday and asked them if they are ready for the rush of Americans if the U.S. travel ban is lifted as proposed by legislation now under consideration in the U.S. Congress.
Americans really want to see Cuba, said Robert Whitely, president of the U.S. Tour Operators, which together with the National Tour Association also present at the event, handles 75 percent of all package tour business to the Caribbean.
We predict that at least 850,000 Americans will go to Cuba in the first year, Whitely said.
That does not include an estimated 480,000 Americans who will go to Cuba on Caribbean cruises when U.S. ships are allowed to dock there, and another 480,000 Cuban American visiting family in Cuba each year, a Cuban official said.
Cuba plans to build 30 hotels over the next six years with the help of foreign investors, adding 10,000 rooms to the 48,600 that exist now, as well as golf courses, said Miguel Figueras, the top adviser to the Cuban tourism minister.
Cuba was a favorite playground for Americans in the 1950s, when the Mafia ran casinos and brothels in Havana that were closed by Castro. As Cuba veered toward communism, Washington broke off diplomatic ties, imposed trade and travel bans and Cuba's tourist trade all but disappeared for three decades.
Some 2.5 million tourists visited Cuba this year, mostly from Canada and Europe, said Figueras, who indicated that U.S. companies are losing out to the tune of $1 billion a year.
According to Cuban estimates based on 2 million Americans visiting Cuba a year, U.S. airlines stand to earn $600 million and travel agencies $300 million annually, Figueras said.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to improve ties with communist-run Cuba and lifted restrictions introduced by the Bush administration on visits and family remittances by Cuban Americans to the island.
But whether American tourists will return to Cuba will hinge on debate in Congress, where opponents say sanctions should not be lifted until Cuba frees political prisoners and undertakes democratic reforms to its one-party state.
They say American tourism will help prop up the communist government of President Raul Castro, who succeed his ailing brother last year.
A bill to end the travel ban sponsored by Democrat Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona has 195 backers in the House of Representatives, 23 votes short, supporters of the measure said.
Similar legislation in the Senate has the support of key senators such as Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, but needs 60 votes to pass.
They are within striking distance in the House, said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute think tank.
No action on the bill is expected until the spring.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana, editing by Cynthia Osterman)