U.S. hotel chains circle Cuba as visitors surge, restrictions ease

Wed Sep 30, 2015 9:19am EDT
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By Mike Stone and Mitra Taj

NEW YORK/LIMA, PERU (Reuters) - The race for Cuba's beach-front is on.

Executives from major U.S. hotel chains have stepped up their interest in the Communist island in recent months, holding informal talks with Cuban officials as Washington loosens restrictions on U.S. firms operating there.

Executives from Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide and Carlson Hospitality Group, which runs the Radisson chain, are among those who have held talks with Cuban officials in recent months, they told Reuters.

"We're all very interested." said Ted Middleton, Hilton's senior vice president of development in Latin America. "When legally we're allowed to do so we all want to be at the start-line ready to go."

The United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in July after decades of hostility. Washington chipped away further at the half-century-old trade embargo this month, allowing certain companies to establish subsidiaries or joint ventures in Cuba as well as open offices, stores and warehouses in Cuba.

The United States wants to strike a deal that lets U.S. airlines schedule Cuba flights as soon as possible, a State Department official said last week, amid speculation that a U.S. ban on its tourists visiting Cuba could be eased.

U.S. hoteliers are not currently allowed to invest in Cuba, and the Caribbean island officially remains off-limits for U.S. tourists unless they meet special criteria such as being Cuban-Americans or join special cultural or educational tours.

Foreign companies have to partner with a Cuban entity to do business and U.S. hoteliers expect they will have to do likewise if and when U.S. restrictions are lifted.   Continued...

A man stands near the national flags of the U.S. and Cuba (R) on the balcony of a hotel being used by the first U.S. congressional delegation to Cuba since the change of policy announced by U.S. President Barack Obama on December 17, in Havana, January 19, 2015. The United States will urge Cuba to lift travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats and agree to establish U.S. and Cuban embassies in historic talks in Havana this week aimed at restoring relations, a senior State Department official said on Monday. REUTERS/Stringer (CUBA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR4M2H1