February 7, 2011
William Gibson and Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel
They hope to tap a growing market of Cuban-Americans and members of
religious, educational and cultural groups who can now travel more
freely to the island.
Their main goal, however, is to prepare for a major surge of traffic if the two nations remove all travel barriers for American tourists. The United States first imposed partial trade and travel restrictions in 1960 — and made it a near-total embargo in 1962 — in hopes of undercutting the Fidel Castro regime.
"If relations change between the two countries, we'd certainly like to be well-positioned to take advantage," said Doug Webster, director of administration and strategic planning for the Broward County Aviation Department. "If we ever get to that point, the potential is big."
and Tampa international airports already have told the U.S. Customs and
Border Protection agency they would like to host direct flights. Key
West International Airport is preparing an application, and Orlando International Airport is considering applying.
"We're looking toward the future, and there's a possibility of regime change in Cuba," said Phil Brown, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. "What we've seen over the years is that once these changes occur there's a rapid need, and you're better off to be prepared rather than scramble after the fact to get ready."
President Barack Obama's decision in 2009 to remove restrictions on Cuban-American travel has roughly doubled passenger trips on authorized charter flights to Cuba. The latest rules change, which took effect on Jan. 28, will increase the flow by easing limits on religious groups and some other travelers with a special reason to go to Cuba.
In the short run, tourism expert say, these changes will have relatively little impact on Florida's huge travel industry. Nevertheless, charter companies predict that the increased flow of students, researchers, artists and missionaries — combined with more frequent Cuban-American visits — could create hundreds of jobs.
Perhaps more important, greater exposure to Cuba for some Americans may stoke public demands on Congress to remove the U.S. ban on tourist travel. That would lead to hundreds of thousands of American visits each year, said Abraham Pizam, dean of tourism management at the University of Central Florida.
"It will be a mass market," Pizam predicted. "Everybody is curious. And unless the prices change, Cuba is a big bargain."
An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people took U.S. charter flights to Cuba last year, more than 90 percent of them Cuban-Americans. That's up from roughly 200,000 in 2009, when Obama allowed unrestricted Cuban-American travel to the island.
To the dismay of embargo advocates, Obama removed restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush that limited Cuban-Americans to one trip every three years. Now they can go as often as they want to visit family members.
Last month, Obama again loosened the rules, this time to allow universities and religious groups to sponsor trips on a general license, which means they don't have to seek permission for each trip. The latest rules also make it easier for cultural groups and some other travelers to get a special license to go to Cuba. And more airports can seek permission to service direct flights, beyond the current three in New York, Miami and Los Angeles.
Tom Cooper, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Gulfstream Air Charter, said traffic on his flights between Miami and Havana roughly doubled in the past year.
During the Bush years, his company used a 19-seat airplane and flew two flights daily. He now operates one flight daily between Miami and Havana using a 737 jet that can hold 146 passengers.
He books fewer passengers than the capacity on the way down — or adds an extra small plane just for cargo — to accommodate all the toiletries, food, clothes, shoes and other goods that Cuban-Americans take to their families.
If the latest rule change creates enough demand, Cooper would consider adding flights from Tampa.
"I don't think it will be a landslide of people," he said. "And it will take a while to ramp up."
Would-be travelers from Florida's university community face special restrictions because the state Legislature in 2006 banned the use of state funds to travel to federally designated "terrorist states," such as Cuba and Iran.
Such limits are strongly backed by some Cuban-American leaders and other embargo proponents, who fear that American travel puts money in the hands of the Castro regime.
"The travel money that goes to Cuba delays the day when this [Castro] government or any other will have to really open up and say to Cubans, 'You can buy and sell and engage in trade just like any other normal society,' " said Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Arlington, Va. "These measures have emboldened the regime."
Administration officials say the new rules will encourage people-to-people contacts and spread information to Cuba, empowering those who push for democratic reforms.
Charter carriers say they just want to meet the demand from many Americans who yearn to go to Cuba and do not want to break the law by traveling through third countries.
"The passengers have increased just because we have more flights, and it's more convenient to travel there. The process is streamlined," said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, which operates charters from Los Angeles and Miami. "Before, we had to check how much money they took, herd them into special areas, put them through more security. Now they are treated like regular passengers, just like anybody else."