By: Donna Tunney
Representatives of the American Society of Travel Agents, the largest travel agency organization in the U.S., traveled to Havana, Cuba, to witness the flag-raising at the U.S. embassy Aug. 14. ASTA, which advocates a full repeal of the travel ban to Cuba, was represented by President and CEO Zane Kerby, and Senior Vice President, Government & Industry Affairs Eben Peck. John Kerry, the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Cuba in 70 years, presided over the ceremony.
"ASTA is honored to have been witness to this milestone event in the new course in U.S. relations with Cuba," said Kerby. "We have long believed that allowing Americans to travel across the globe without restriction enables them to act as ambassadors of freedom, and we pledge to do all we can in conjunction with the Administration, the Congress and key allies such as Engage Cuba to ensure that Americans are free to travel to Cuba without constraint from their own government."
As a founding member of the Engage Cuba coalition, ASTA is supporting legislation pending in Congress, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (S.299/H.R. 664), introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and in the House by Reps. Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Jim McGovern (D-MA), that would fully repeal restrictions on travel by American citizens and legal residents to Cuba in their entirety.
In addition to supporting the principle that Americans be allowed to travel free of government interference, ASTA says lifting the travel ban would bring huge economic benefits to Cuba's neighbors and the travel industry in general by sparking demand for new passenger routes, tour operations and travel agent services. All told, ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2017 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions this year.
In Havana Kerby and Peck also attended a reception at the official U.S. residence of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, U.S. Charge d'Affaires, and met with representatives of Accor Hotels on current and future business opportunities in the Cuba market for ASTA members. The two also met with Havana-based ASTA member Joe Prem of Cuba Select Travel.
Several U.S.-based travel companies already have applied for required licenses from both the American and Cuban governments that would enable Cuba itineraries. The cruise lines have been out in front with this effort. Among those making overtures are Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which owns Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises; Carnival Corp., which aims to begin Cuba cruises next year with its new “fathom” cruise brand; Pearl Seas Cruises; Haimark, and International Expeditions. Italian line MSC Cruises is set to begin Cuba visits in December.