Tourism is the first industry taking off in the rapprochement with Cuba.
For decades, Cuba was like a roomful of expensive wine locked away in a cellar. Now that American travelers can finally peek through a crack in the door, they hunger for their first taste of what was once forbidden.
To help slake this thirst, Florida-based air charters and ferry operators are rushing to create new connections to Cuba. A study by marketing firm Sojern shows online searches for travel there from the U.S. in the first three months of 2015 were up 184 percent compared to the same period last year.
But it may be awhile before Americans can travel to Cuba without restrictions. Those wanting to go must still qualify in one of 12 licensed travel categories, such as education or cultural tours.
Millions of vacationers from Canada, Europe and elsewhere already visit Cuba on a much less restricted basis. Though U.S. citizens are not banned from the island, it’s still illegal for them to spend money there. Cuba is the only country to which the U.S. government restricts travel.
Removing these barriers will require an act of Congress. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts, and Mark Sanford, R-South Carolina, all back a lifting of restrictions. But many Republicans oppose it, fearing that American tourist dollars will only end up with the Cuban government, not the Cuban people.
With no commercial flights serving the island, charters remain the only direct option to flyers. According to the Official Airline Guide, around 365,000 passengers flew on chartered planes from the U.S. to Cuba in 2014.
But with demand now exploding, the number of air routes is quickly expanding. In April, Island Travel & Tours (ITT) announced direct flights to Havana from Orlando International Airport starting in July. ITT already offers flights to Havana from Miami. Mambi International Group started flying from Key West in March.
Charter flights also originate from airports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa via ABC Charters, Airline Brokers, C&T Charters, Cuba Travel Services, Gulfstream Charters, Marazul Charters, Wilson International Services and Xael Charters. A typical round-trip charter flight from Miami costs around $500.
The most recent announcement was a partnership between Eastern Air Lines and HavanaAir. Currently HavanaAir operates 65 flights a month to Havana from Miami. The agreement will result in service from two other U.S. cities this summer. And Eastern will offer twice daily service to Havana and weekly service to Camaguey and Santa Clara in Cuba for HavanaAir.
Customers can also book licensed charters or flights from Florida through third countries to Cuba on CheapAir.com, but costs vary widely, depending on connections.
Another option is nearing shore. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently issued ferry licenses to a few select companies. In Florida, they include Airline Brokers and Baja Ferries USA, both based in Miami, Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale and United Caribbean Lines, based near Orlando.
Others hope to be approved soon. Jacksonville-based CubaKat plans to start service from Key West on a 200-passenger catamaran. Company President Brian Hall is not worried that he still awaits a license.
“In just a couple of years, up to 5 million travelers are forecast to travel to Cuba annually,” said Hall. “No one company can handle all that traffic — our company can only accommodate up to 120,000, even sailing six days a week. That means there’s plenty of business to go around.”
Though the Treasury Department has already granted a handful of ferry licenses, there are still several hoops to jump through on the Cuban side before any company can put boats in the water. Appearing at a legal conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville, José Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington cautioned that Cuba’s approvals may be slow.
“These companies (still) have to go to our authorities, they have to introduce their ideas,” Cabañas said in an interview with the Cuba Standard. “Some of them we already know. But they are not all equal. Some of them have just a license, not the capital, not the ships.”
And CubaKat has none of these — yet. The company is still in the process of raising $500,000 to fund operations and is soliciting potential investors — and vouchers for discounted tickets — via its website.
But these challenges do not concern Hall, who’s confident of CubaKat’s selection. “We’ve already been working on securing government permission for some time with our contacts in Cuba.” Hall does acknowledge there will be strict conditions, fees, inspections and personnel requirements all ferry operators must meet to satisfy Cuban officials.
CubaKat plans to start preparing its first catamaran by midsummer and start serving Havana around Sept. 1. Round-trip tickets will be $338. Baja Ferries USA also plans to be in operation by September, according to Joseph Hinson, company vice president.
Already on CubaKat’s drawing board are smaller, faster catamarans that can sail at speeds up to 35 knots. “They’ll be capable of making the trip in two hours, 45 minutes,” said Hall. In addition to fast crossings, CubaKat will also offer 4’ x 4’ rental storage containers to passengers who want to bring items from the U.S. to Cuban relatives.
Boats from the other ferry companies may not be as fast as those of CubaKat, but will instead feature more luxurious, on-board amenities targeted to vacationers. Baja Ferries USA will offer overnight accommodations and meals. “By contrast, we’re all about getting people to Cuba quickly and safely,” said Hall.
The challenge for the growing tourism sector is Cuba’s aging infrastructure and lack of hotel rooms.
Answering the call is Airbnb, a San Francisco-based company that has emerged as the economic development winner in the loosening of restrictions with Cuba. The internet travel accommodations broker connects travelers with homes or rooms in 190 countries. The company shared its Cuba stats: it took three years for San Francisco and Berlin to grow to 1,000 listings and it took Cuba two months; since entering Cuba on April 2 it received 500 new hosts/ listings; 30 different cities in Cuba are available, with 40 percent of them in Havana and searches for Cuba have increased by 27 times.