American Tourists Flock to Film and Jazz Festivals in Cuba

Havana Street Scene
The jazz era lives in Havana (Pictor Photo).

Cuba's Hotel Nacional sits like a palatial fortress atop a low hill overlooking the Florida Straits and the Malécon, Havana's waterfront boulevard. Were it not for the absence of gambling and the photographs of Che Guevara playing golf, a visitor arriving at the hotel during the first two weeks of December 2002 would probably find the place not unlike it was in December 1952. Scores of American tourists milled about, chatting and sipping mojitos, classic cars from Detroit's heyday were parked outside, and in the center of the lobby, a giant faux-spruce Christmas tree soared clear to the ceiling.

Once more, the resplendent, 1930s-era luxury hotel was headquarters for the annual International Festival of New Latin-American Cinema, now in its 24th year. The 2002 festival, which offered over 400 films, documentaries, and shorts from Latin America and around the world (including nearly 50 mostly independent productions from the United States), brought a number of celebrity American tourists to Cuba this year, including Harry Belafonte, Matt Dillon, Danny Glover, and director Julie Taymor. But the real focus of the Havana festival is the films themselves, and this year's event attracted an estimated 300,000 local residents, making it arguably the largest, and certainly the most publicly accessible, film festival in the world.

As moviegoers packed into Havana's cavernous big-screen cinemas, brand-new tour buses unloaded still more American tourists for the Havana Jazz Festival at Cuba's National Theater, next to Revolution Square. Hosted by Cuban Grammy-award winning pianist Chucho Valdés, this year's Jazz Festival was headlined by American artists like Roy Hargrove, Taj Mahal, Regina Carter, and Steve Turre. Foreign visitors forked over $120 for four-day passes, but Cubans patient enough to wait in line purchased tickets to individual performances for 10 Cuban pesos—about 40 cents.

The heavy presence of American visitors at the film and jazz festivals reflects an important trend in the rising tide of American tourism to Cuba. Strict U.S. regulations essentially prevent the kind of sun-and-beach tourism popular in Cuba among Canadians and Europeans, but organized conferences or festivals often fit within the legal framework that allows U.S. citizens to obtain Cuba travel permits from the U.S. Treasury Department, either independently or through a licensed tour provider.

Tourism is now Cuba's principal source of foreign revenue. The Cuban government has invested heavily in the industry in hopes that it will power a recovery from the economic paralysis that seized the island following the demise of its socialist trading partners in the early 1990s. According to Cuba's Office of National Statistics, the country received nearly 1.8 million tourists in 2001, including approximately 200,000 Americans, of which some 120,000 were Cuban-Americans visiting their families.

That figure makes the United States the no. 2 source of foreign visitors to the island, second only to Canada, despite the persistence of travel restrictions. It also represents a 400-percent increase in the number of non-Cuban-American U.S. visitors to Cuba since 1995.

Critics of the Castro government note the proliferation of festivals, academic conferences, and trade conventions in Cuba that have contributed to the rise of U.S. tourism to Cuba and charge that that the Cuban government is more interested in attracting tourists' much-needed hard currency than anything else. Unlike the film festival, they point out, many of these events  began only in the 1990s, when the Cuban government was desperate for cash and seeking to jump-start its nascent tourist industry any way possible. A visit to the government-run Cubaweb site lists more than 400 festivals, conferences, and conventions in 2002, the majority inaugurated in the last 10 years.

Under the U.S. Treasury Department's 1963 "Trading with the Enemy" Act, American citizens and legal residents are prohibited from spending money in Cuba, which effectively prevents U.S. tourism to the island. Certain categories of travelers such as journalists, government personnel, academics, and Cuban-Americans visiting their families are allowed to go. All other Americans must apply to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control for special permission, a process that often takes months.

But according to estimates by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, some 20,000 Americans visit Cuba each year without the Treasury Department's permission, traveling to Cuba via a third country, typically Canada or Mexico. Under the Bush administration, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of Americans who have been fined or threatened with fines for illegally visiting Cuba. Maximum penalties can stretch to 10 years in prison with fines up to $250,000 for individuals or $1 million for corporations.

In Washington, these travel restrictions have increasingly come under attack by lawmakers seeking to gain enough Congressional support to have them repealed, despite the threat of veto by President Bush. During a visit to Havana in November, Rep. William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) suggested that current travel restrictions could be lifted within the next two years. Delahunt is a member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, which seeks to reform U.S. policy toward Cuba by liberalizing travel and trade and promoting cooperation on issues of mutual concern like drug trafficking, terrorism, and the illegal smuggling of immigrants.

Were U.S. travel restrictions to be lifted, the economic effect on Cuba would be immediate. According to Richard Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, the largest travel agents' association in the United States, Cuba is likely to receive a million American tourists within the first year of restrictions being lifted, and as many as 5 million tourists annually within five years. Copland announced while visiting Cuba last April that his organization was already developing a special training course to help U.S. travel agents promote tourism to Cuba in anticipation of the policy change.

Though difficult to predict, the potential political effect in Cuba of large-scale U.S. tourism to the island has been much debated. Many supporters for Cuba policy reform in Washington have argued that liberalizing travel would do more to further U.S. interests than the embargo the United States has maintained against the island's communist government for the last four decades.