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Business Brief: As Tourists Flock To Cuba, Local Business Leaders Still Cool To Idea

John Burr
A cab driver offers rides in a 1956 Chevy Bel-Aire in old Havana.

As diplomatic relations improve between Cuba and the U.S., more and more people are traveling to the island nation.  Among them is WJCT business analyst John Burr, who traveled there recently with a group from his church. 

Burr spent four days in Havana and Santa Clara, a smaller city near the center of the island. Two things surprised him most about the trip. First, the country is wide open for American tourists, and second, once you get outside of Havana and a couple of the other larger cities, the country is crippled by poverty.

cigars in box
Credit John Burr
Hand-rolled cigars are offered for sale in Havana.

Also, although U.S. citizens must fit their purpose for traveling into one of about a dozen reasons, the reality on the ground is different.

Burr’s group got a visa based on religious activities, but at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, an official from JetBlue started raising technical issues with their visas and then offered to sell them tourist visas on the spot for $50. That’s how open it is to travel to Cuba for any reason.

The roundtrip ticket to Havana from Jacksonville was $225, cheaper than flying to New York City.

The hotels were expensive, the food was cheap and the taxis were cheap, especially the state-owned service. They are about half the price of the ubiquitous old American cars from the 1950s, also used as taxis.

Havana was packed with tourists. Of course, Europeans have been traveling there for years with no restrictions, but Americans can now be seen everywhere too. The people in the tourist business mostly speak English, and the people are very friendly to Americans.

Credit John Burr
Men travel by horse-drawn carriage in the Cuban countryside near Santa Clara.

But there’s no doubt Cuba remains a poor country. Burr really started to see that outside Havana — crumbling homes and storefronts, people getting around in horse-drawn carts. For all the material signs of poverty, Burr said people appear well fed, with wear clean clothes. That, he said, is the positive side of the revolutionary government: universal health care and education.

What Business Leaders See

Jacksonville has historic business ties to Cuba in shipping and trade that predate the Communist revolution in 1959, but there appears to be little interest among city business leaders in reestablishing those ties.

Part of the reason, Burr said, is the feeling that Cuba is so poor, there’s no way to make money there. Another part of the reason, at least in Jacksonville, is political — there continues to be a strong distaste, especially among Republican leaders, to engage with Cuba, which, by extension, means engaging with the Cuban government. And that distaste carries over to a large segment of the local business community, including the Jax Chamber of Commerce.

Listen to this story on Redux

Burr said it will be interesting to see how long Jacksonville businesses continue to hold Cuba at arm’s length. Certainly some very large bets are being made on the growth of Cuban trade and tourism. He saw a huge, dilapidated shipping warehouse on the Havana waterfront being torn down to build a cruise terminal.

If there is any quick fix economically out there for Cuba, it seems like tourism is it, Burr said. 

WATCH: John Burr takes a taxi ride down one of Havana's main drags. Then, street performers play music: