World's best all-inclusive resort

The world’s best all-inclusive resort, as voted by members of TripAdvisor, is in a country most Americans have never visited.

Beach at Royalton Cayo Santa Maria
The Number One resort is the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria in the city of Cayo Santa María … in Cuba!

That is especially noteworthy in light of the fact that, with a few exceptions, Americans have been effectively prohibited from traveling to Cuba since President Kennedy issued a trade embargo in July 1962, which was followed by the issuance of additional economic sanctions a year later following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

While the economic sanctions do not technically prohibit Americans from going to Cuba, they do make it a crime to spend any money there – even for food and lodging – unless the travelers have been issued a license by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

The fact that an upmarket resort in Cuba was given top honors by travelers from around the world shows that, while the embargo may be keeping U.S. dollars out of Cuban coffers, it isn’t stopping the flow of pounds or euros or yen. TripAdvisor has more than 1,200 reviews of the property from a number of members who live in Canada as well as reviewers from Scotland, the Netherlands, Australia and, I suspect, some Americans who chose not to reveal where they live.

MY OPINION: Time to lift the embargo

Standard guest room
Rapid technological and not-so-rapid political changes since the institution of the embargo and economic restrictions have significantly diluted the effectiveness they may have once had.

When the embargo was put into effect, travel was much more an undertaking and much more expensive than it is today. As a result, vacationers didn’t venture as far from home as they do today so, because the United States is the closest large country to Cuba, prohibiting Americans from visiting may have initially deprived the country of a significant number of tourists. Today, things are dramatically different.

In the early '60s, a large portion of air travel was on propeller-driven aircraft, meaning much longer travel times. Air travel also ate up a much larger chunk of travelers’ disposable income. For example, in the mid-60s, a round trip “coach” class ticket on American Airlines from Phoenix (PHX) to Chicago (ORD) was $266.50 at a time when the average annual U.S. wage was $4,658, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, a round trip ticket between those two cities is still around $250 according to, while the average annual U.S. wage in 2013 was $44,888, or about ten times higher than in 1965.

Pool and bar area
As a result of cheaper fares and shorter travel times, people are traveling more often, going farther from home, and staying longer at their destinations. Travel between the Americas and Europe, at one time the province of the rich and a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience for the rest of us, is now much less expensive and much more accessible.

With travelers visiting Cuba from all over the world, how effective is it to continue the U.S. embargo? I would argue: Not very. Certainly, the United States is physically the closest major nation to Cuba, but flights from Toronto (YYZ) to Havana (HAV) are only 3.5 hours long; shorter than flights from Seattle (SEA) to Honolulu (HNL).

The embargo puts Americans who want to visit Cuba into one of three categories: those who simply won’t go unless and until the restrictions are lifted, those who go with a licensed tour operator and agree to a very restrictive itinerary under a modest easing of the embargo in 2011 that now allows “people-to-people” travel through licensed tour operators, and those who will opt to flout the law and travel to Cuba independently.

Individual travelers who violate the sanctions risk criminal penalties of up to $250,000, up to $65,000 in civil penalties and up to 10 years in prison, though reliable statistics on how many individuals have been prosecuted are hard to come by. The operator of the Cuba-related web site says, to his knowledge, “[N]o one has been prosecuted merely for going to Cuba and spending money there as a tourist.”

A post on outlined how simple it is to get around the U.S. government travel restrictions: Buy a round-trip ticket from the U.S. to a country that offers flights to Cuba such as Canada or Mexico, then a second round-trip ticket to Cuba and back. That, the poster said, can be done on any dot-com travel agent that isn't based in the United States.

The flag of Cuba
For their part, Cuban officials are reputed to play the game so that Americans aren’t punished when they return home, putting the country’s entry visas on something akin to a Post-it® note so that it can be removed upon departure without leaving damning evidence in the travelers’ passports.

Further, the government of Cuba has changed since the restrictions were put into place. Fidel Castro has been out of power since falling ill in 2006, and the current regime is in some ways less restrictive than many others around the world. For example, the Royalton Cayo Santa Maria has its own Facebook page, which is readily accessible from the U.S. and other countries. Countries including China – with whom the U.S. trades freely – Iran and North Korea do not allow their citizens access to Facebook.

Finally, the sanctions were instituted “[U]nder the Trading with the Enemy Act in response to certain hostile actions by the Cuban Government,” according to an OFAC publication. Since the early '60s, what has Cuba done that could be considered hostile? Other than the shooting down of two civilian airplanes that violated Cuban airspace in the mid-90s - which arguably might not have happened were it not for the embargo - does it still deserve the label “enemy”?

In many ways, even the U.S. government is easing its stance. A 2001 agreement to sell food to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle has so far remained in place and the United States is now Cuba's main supplier of food, with sales reaching $710 million in 2008, according to an article in Time magazine. In addition to his 2009 and 2011 easings of travel restrictions, President Obama has also agreed to let telecommunications companies to pursue business Cuba, an action previously prohibited under the embargo.

Have Americans traveling to Cuba – and estimates are that some 60,000 per year go there – been captured, held hostage, or executed? Not according to anything I’ve been able to find.

A report prepared by Free Society Project, Inc., lists 30 Americans who were “executed, assassinated or disappeared by Cuban’s Communist regime,” but it also notes that 25 died in the first few tumultuous years after the revolution. Compare that to Mexico, where at least 648 American citizens were murdered between October 2002 and December 2012, according to an Agence France Press analysis of U.S. State Department figures. That constitutes more than 40 percent of the 1,600 American tourists who were killed over the same period worldwide.

It seems to me that the embargo is outdated, only marginally effective if at all, and should be repealed.

Times have clearly changed and it is time for U.S. policy to change as well.

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Hotel photos courtesy of Royalton Luxury Resorts
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