President Barack Obama’s concessions to Cuba opened the way for U.S. airlines to do business with the communist dictatorship. After announcing frequent flights to the island over a year ago, however, many major airlines have found the demand they expected from U.S. tourists simply is not there.
In an extensive report Friday, Bloomberg noted a general dismay both among airlines and other tourism-related businesses that Cuba was not proving as popular as they expected. The outlet reports that American Airlines was forced to cut a fourth of its flights to Cuba. JetBlue chose to use smaller planes rather than limit the number of flights but nonetheless had to address the low demand.
Different experts offered different explanations for this situation. One noted that the popularity of Cuba trips did increase in the immediate aftermath of President Obama’s 2014 announcement of restoring diplomatic ties with the dictatorship but that the initial interest ultimately fizzled. The soaring prices following the U.S.’s entry into the Cuban tourism market did not help. According to Bloomberg, “some rooms now cost as much as $650 per night, serving as a major deterrent to Americans hunting for novel warm-weather destinations,” and those prices began to rise long before the airlines began flying south.
While the United States relaxed laws allowing big businesses to operate in Cuba, the Cuban government did not change any of its laws to accommodate the extensive freedoms Americans are used to on free soil. This may have also impacted both Americans’ interest in Cuba and the ability of U.S. businesses to operate there.
A major example of business’s profit hopes clashing with draconian Communist laws occurred last year when Carnival Cruises announced its first voyages to Cuba. Cuban-Americans looking to take advantage of the trips rapidly found they were not welcome because the arrival of Cuban-Americans by ship violated a Communist Party law passed after President John F. Kennedy chose to doom the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion to failure. Carnival’s decision to abide by Cuban law put the corporation at odds with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and triggered a wave of protests and a lawsuit. The Cuban government ultimately made an exception for Carnival.
Similar legal minefields exist with other U.S. tourist enterprises. Tourism to Cuba is particularly dangerous for Cuban-Americans, as Cuban law does not recognize their U.S. citizenship, even if they were born in the United States and have never been on the island. The U.S. embassy in Havana was forced to release a warning to U.S. citizens with Cuban heritage that the government could arbitrarily seize their passports and arrest them for “counterrevolutionary activities,” not necessarily in response to any particular political activity.
Tourists who do not have a Cuban background have another reason to stay away: Decades of communism have turned Cuba into an impoverished nation with limited luxuries and especially limited freedom of expression. Tourists who have written of their experiences there describe it as inconvenient and sad.
“I also saw up close an undercurrent of sadness I couldn’t quite shake,” wrote Kari Paul in Market Watch after her return. “The oppressive atmosphere was impossible to ignore when I offhandedly told people I met to visit me in New York sometime, and watched them shake their heads.” Paul noted that she could not enthusiastically endorse Americans visiting the island, not just because of the sadness of the experience, but the knowledge that “the influx of tourists is causing major food shortages for locals.”
The website iAfrica found international tourists appalled at the conditions in Cuban hotels and restaurants. “You spent three hours waiting to eat. Since they were state restaurants, the staff could have cared less,” French tourist Jean Orsini protested. Other tourists noted that the four-star hotels often lacked running water.