Cuba wants American medical tourists


Although Cuban-Americans can now visit Cuba, other Americans still have to get a visa and prove to the authorities that they have a good reason to visit. So far, President Obama has not delivered on his promise of free trade and free travel between the USA and Cuba.

A delegation from American trade organization World Trade Center Tampa Bay has just returned from a Cuba trip and issued a declaration aimed at promoting travel and business with the island. WTC intends to re-establish historic relationships between the Tampa Bay area and Cuba by encouraging travel of business and trade groups to Cuba. The organization believes that unrestricted and free travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba should be approved. An embargo currently prohibits most travel to the island and limits trade to food, agriculture and medical products. The organization has encouraged the University of South Florida to establish a medical school relationship with Cuban institutions and supports efforts to establish Tampa International Airport and the Port of Tampa as authorized gateways for travel and trade with Cuba.

Although Americans do travel for medical treatment to Cuba, they do so illegally. But Cuba is building on the medical tourism trade it gets from Canada, Latin America and Caribbean Islands. Cuba refuses to release statistics of how many medical tourists it gets and where they come from, as that could show how many Americans go there illegally. Cuba treatment costs are a third to a quarter of those in the United States, according to Latin American doctors and patients. For Cuba, health tourism is not only a source of income, it is a tool for promoting Cuba's Communist system; and this explains the official American antagonism to the country.

Last year, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, which do not have diplomatic relations, agreed to allow weekly charter flights between the two countries, and since then at least 150 Dominicans have flown to Cuba for medical treatment, according to travel agents.

Cuba, which prides itself on its accomplishments in medicine, has made a business of inviting foreigners to its hospitals and clinics. It distributes a colour brochure titled, ''Cuba, Health Tourism,'' and a price list covering services from physical examinations to open heart surgery. It offers a basic package of seven nights and eight days in a hotel or a clinic, or longer stays depending on the seriousness of the problem. As well as in a network of clinics, foreigners are treated in special private rooms in state run hospitals. Medical tourists visiting the island report seeing Spanish, Italian, Chinese and even a few American patients.

Cuba attracts patients from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where advanced equipment and techniques are lacking and where there are often shortages of medicine and personnel. Cuban officials say more patients are now coming from the Dominican Republic than elsewhere in the Caribbean because of the direct flights and because the two countries share Spanish as their common language. Payment must be made in dollars, which Cuba needs to buy essential goods from Western countries.

One American excuse for not lifting the embargo is that Cuba is not prepared for a mass of US tourists. Cuba is aware of the value of tourism to its economy and what a change in US tourism policy would mean. This nation has rapidly developed hotels and resorts over the past two decades to cater to primarily Canadian and European travellers, 2.4 million tourists in 2009.

Cuba has been offering health tourism since 1989, for both medical treatment and health spas. All health tourism goes via Cubanacan Tourism and Health, a state owned company that uses a network of hospitals, private medical and dental clinics, opticians, drugstores and spas. It markets health tourism through travel agencies and private clinics. It runs the international clinics scattered all across the country, as well as medical outposts in hotels and resorts.



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