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Despite Lack of Diplomatic Ties, Israeli Tourists Flocking to Cuba

October 31, 2003
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Israel and Cuba haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1973, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of Israelis from touring the Caribbean island anyway.

“We assume that at least 10,000 Israelis have already visited Cuba,” said Daniel Faians, president and CEO of Polaris Group, a large travel wholesaler and airline agent based in Tel Aviv.

Overall traffic from Israel to Latin America is estimated at 80,000 per year, of which half are limited-budget mochileros, or backpackers, Faians said.

“But those who go to Cuba aren’t mochileros,” he said. “They stay in deluxe hotels and travel in private cars with private guides.”

Faians, who spoke to JTA by phone from Tel Aviv, said “Israelis by nature are very inquisitive and are always looking for new destinations. Cuba appeals to the Israeli market because it’s something new and unusual.”

Cuba is almost never sold as a single destination, but usually is combined with a Central American country like Costa Rica or Guatemala, with tourists spending one week in each place, Faians said.

Israelis generally pay $1,000 to $1,500 for a seven-day tour of Cuba. That includes accommodations at four- and five-star hotels but excludes airfare, which can cost another $1,100 or more.

Faians said his agency pushes the main attractions — Havana, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba — but often directs his clients to spend their last two nights in Varadero, so they can at least see what a Caribbean beach destination is like.

Unlike their European or Canadian counterparts, “Israelis don’t visit Cuba as a vacation destination, and they generally don’t go to the beaches. If they want that, they can go to Turkey, which is a lot cheaper and closer,” Faians said. “They’re looking for the cultural experience.”

Anti-Semitism is not a problem, and there’s no personal hostility toward Israel in Cuba — despite the lack of diplomatic ties, the Cuban regime’s friendship with the Arab world and its position equating Zionism with racism.

“The Cuban people don’t know much about Israel and the current situation in the Middle East, so they just see us as other tourists, like Germans or Spaniards,” Faians said. “And we don’t have any problems with the authorities. If you arrive with an Israeli passport, you get the same treatment as anybody else.”

Faians avoids involvement with Israeli investors in Cuba. Currently, the biggest Israeli investor is Tel Aviv-based Grupo BM, which is behind an 18-building office complex in Miramar, a once-wealthy suburb of Havana.

The $200 million project, known as the Miramar Trade Center, is managed locally by Inmobiliaria Monte Barreto S.A., an entity registered in Panama. The company’s chief is Enrique Rottenberg, an Argentine Jew living in Havana.

Rottenberg refused to talk about BM’s activities.

According to an official pamphlet, the project is being built in five phases and should be done by 2008. Dozens of Cuban state-run trading companies, foreign firms and embassies already have offices in the center, which is adorned with Israeli art.

One thing is certain: the Miramar Trade Center won’t be on the must-see list for Israeli tourists — or tourists of any nation, for that matter. Only people who have official business there are allowed on the premises.

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