Havana A push in Congress to do away with U.S. travel bans on Cuba could set off a flood of American visitors to the long-forbidden island.
But many wonder whether a country where foreigners have long complained about lousy food, sluggish service and iffy infrastructure is ready for an onslaught of Americans unseen since the days of Meyer Lansky and Al Capone.
Cuba has about as many hotel rooms as Detroit and most are already full of Canadians and Europeans. Experts say droves of Americans could drive up prices, unleash calls for more flights and cruises than Cuba can handle and force the government to tighten visa restrictions to regulate the stampede.
“There is great pent-up demand,” said Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association, which opposes the travel ban. “It will have to be controlled by officials in Cuba, but also by U.S. tour operators to make sure the infrastructure is up to it.”
Bills in the U.S. House and Senate would effectively allow all Americans to visit. Trips for U.S. citizens with relatives here already got easier last month. Cuban-Americans can now come annually instead of every three years.
Cuba began encouraging international tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union, and its top feeder countries are Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain and France. Foreign tourist visits jumped 9.3 percent last year to a record 2.35 million, generating $2.7 billion or 11 percent more than 2007, the government says.
Despite the global economic downturn, international visitor rates have increased 4.5 percent through February as compared to the first two months of 2008.
An influx of Americans could create a lodging crunch. The communist state has partnered with foreign companies such as Spanish chain Sol Melia to offer about 46,000 hotel rooms across an island about the size of Pennsylvania. Some 17,300 of those rooms are concentrated in the beach resort of Varadero, 90 miles east of Havana.
Cuba plans to build 30 new hotels nationwide to tap into the market for boutique accommodations. Some of those have been completed, but many aging properties have been shut down for remodeling, leaving the total number of rooms flat since 2006.
According to Smith Travel Research, the 349 hotels in Miami and Hialeah alone have about as many rooms as all of Cuba. The city of Detroit, with 42,000-plus hotel rooms, is not far behind.
Even at top Cuban resorts, it is often hard to get amenities as basic as an extra roll of toilet paper. Comforts including apples, french fries and bottled beer are sometimes scarce — not to mention perks like in-room coffee-makers or wireless Internet access.
And, as in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, international tourists complain about sub-par food and service.
“You have maybe five hotels that you could consider decent enough for Americans and their standards, but if they are already running at 60-70 percent occupancy during high season, where are all these new people going to stay?” asked John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York.
Many travelers bypass hotels for rented rooms in Cuban homes. But the government does not allow those offering home-stays to rent more than two rooms, and few are hopeful those rules will be eased, no matter what happens to the U.S. travel ban.