US travel market bullish on Cuba

International news reports in late May on a tiny event in Havana, Cuba, near the start of its month-long Bienal art festival (which continues until June 22) shed some light on advances in a soon-to-be-opened market:   

A tall, slender man in a dark suit and crisp white shirt walked into a bar in Old Havana and, speaking in an American-English accent, ordered a mojito.  

He quietly sipped his tall drink through a straw and took in the scene at O’Reilly 304 as other patrons began turning to focus on the familiar face. Some of them, news articles said, turned their cellphone cameras on the image of the man at the bar, thinking it was the president of the United States. 

As it turned out, it was not Barack Obama who had ambled into the establishment for a cool one, but performance artist René Francisco Rodriguez, whose face and lanky frame strongly resemble the American president’s. But what a perfect moment in history for such a theatrical scene to play out. 

 

Changing times  

The United States maintained an embargo on trade and travel between the countries since around 1960. Cuba was one of America’s enemies in the Cold War, and when that war ended, Cuba remained an outcast nation from Washington’s perspective. While over time there were ways for Americans to visit Cuba, they remained round-about, expensive and highly inconvenient for half a century.  

Last December, though, Obama began to restore full diplomatic relations with the Caribbean nation and the establishment of an embassy in Havana, reversing U.S. policy that had been in place for 54 years, and opened the door for Americans and Cubans to connect in large numbers.  

Beyond that, Rodriguez’s performances in O’Reilly 304 came just shortly after a graphic break in the two countries’ history. That was when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro met face-to-face in Washington for detailed talks on how the future might enable a more felicitous relationship between their countries and, especially, their citizens. 

Details of the official changes in how the U.S. and Cuba will interact and how visitors of both nationalities may mingle are still under discussion, but commerce – especially the visitor and tourism industry – has already thrown its full weight into making the short path across the Straits of Florida easier and shorter. 

“This is the biggest news in the Caribbean,” said Peter O’Connor, a travel agent in Washington, D.C. “There’s a half-century’s worth of pent-up demand for American travel to Cuba, not only among cutting-edge travelers eager to visit a place that has been off-limits for decades, but for the hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans in the U.S. who want to make a trip to experience their roots.” 

Make no mistake, the industry O’Connor represents has embraced the future of U.S.-to-Cuba tourism with plenty of energy. But that does not mean all the travel details are clear – or even drawn up with any satisfaction at this point. Online travel agencies have announced services, including sales of U.S.-to-Cuba travel, that they seem to not fully offer yet, and airlines are still sorting out what kind of connections they might provide. 

Travelers in, say, Chicago, who want to vacation in Cuba, must first demonstrate that they are among 12 types of visitors permitted to visit there. The categories include those making family visits, journalists, educators and scholars, government workers, members of religious groups, and certain trade representatives, among others. 

In addition, they would find no direct scheduled travel services to Cuba and would have to find a charter service or fly or cruise through other, sometimes remote, countries to get to their destination. Historically, those places have included international airports in Canada and Mexico or those in the Caribbean, especially in the Bahamas or Jamaica or, for some travelers, the Cayman Islands. Cayman Airways has regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, so an American could book a flight or cruise to Grand Cayman on the way to Havana. 

 

Direct flights from New York  

Only in the past few weeks has an American airline announced it would offer direct flights between the U.S. and Cuba. On May 6, JetBlue said it would begin service between New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport starting in July. JetBlue’s service will be nonstop flights on Fridays. 

U.S. Census figures show that the greater New York City area has the second-largest Cuban-American population in the U.S., after Florida. JetBlue also announced it hopes to start regular service between Tampa and Cuba this month or next, and other air carriers are considering direct flights as well.  

Tampa has the second-largest Cuban-American population in the state, owing in part to its having been the seat of American cigar-making using Cuban tobacco and methods starting in the 19th century. 

Meanwhile, numerous travel and charter services have begun elevating their visibility in many parts of the U.S. to make Americans aware of their flights and cruise packages to Cuba. One service, Skyscanner (skyscanner.com), offers connections to airlines and charters and provides ticket-price information.  

Another website, Cubalinda.com, whose advertising messages include the phrase, “The shortest way to Cuba,” shows that Americans can catch a roundtrip flight on Cubana Airlines to Havana International on Sunday, June 14 (return the following Sunday) for US$390, taxes included.  

Travelers through Cancun, Mexico, have more than one choice of carrier. A noon economy class flight on June 15 costs $394 on AeroMexico; a similar flight three hours later on Cubana costs $404, both including taxes. 

The best recently published total price for a mid-June Cayman Airways flight (for less than an hour airtime) from Grand Cayman to Marti Airport in Havana was about US$368, competitive with flights from Cancun and Nassau.  

Some consolidators offer discounts on flights or cruises from American cities to the foreign portals for Cuba flights; others leave the details and expenses to the traveler. 

A USA Today newspaper article in late February, reported how easy it was to buy flights between the U.S. and Cuba through a website called CheapAir.com, which claimed to be the first online travel agency to allow U.S. travelers easy bookings for these flights. 

But an effort to get flight information about U.S.-Cuba flights before the two governments have crossed all the t’s and dotted the i’s fell far short of satisfaction. CheapAir.com provided no details at all about connections between the U.S. and Cuba. 

“We could not find flights as per your original search criteria on the airlines we searched; please update your search criteria and re-start the search,” was the message the site flashed on the screen. It also listed a toll-free customer support number. At that number, Miguel, who answered the call, said he could not make reservations between Miami and Cuba on the phone. “You’ll have to do that online.”  

When told he was providing only circular reasoning, Miguel agreed to get his supervisor on the call. After a 15-minute wait, the repetitive music stopped and the line went dead. Such is the frustration of a traveler at this time, as the governments sort out the details of Cuba travel.  

Charter flights out of Florida airports, including Miami, Tampa and Orlando, make the search a little easier. Tocororo Travel and its online site, Tocororo.com, offer non-regularly scheduled roundtrips between Miami International and Marti Airport for $449 and have been promoting them vigorously in recent months. 

In March, Cuba Travel Services launched a three-and-a-half-hour direct roundtrip from JFK to Marti for US$849, including taxes and Cuban medical insurance. Industry insiders say competition will increase in the months to come. 

Regarding the options about to become available, Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms said in January that he did not anticipate any immediate decline in Cayman Airways passengers passing through Cayman en route to Havana.  

“We are not perturbed with what is happening right now. For the moment it’s not that much of a change for our passengers traveling between Cuba and the USA,” Mr. Whorms said, making clear that “about 100 percent of our [Cuba] traffic is non-U.S. passport holders.  

The previous U.S. restrictions did not affect those passengers and this easing “is not relevant to them either,” Mr. Whorms said.  

He was reluctant to disclose the number of passengers flying to Cuba from Owen Roberts International Airport, saying the figure was “commercially sensitive,” and he wanted “to preserve the airline’s market intelligence from potential competition.”  

 

Interest is peaking  

At present, diplomats on both sides are seeking to tie up a bilateral air-service agreement, a negotiation that may take until fall of this year. As a result of presidents Obama and Castro’s efforts to normalize relations between the two countries., interest in and information about visiting and trading with Cuba have peaked in the U.S. media, with hardly a day going by without photos of flawless 1950s American sedans rolling along Havana streets appearing in newspapers and magazines. 

Reports from the Cuban Tourism Ministry’s office show that the number of American visitors to Cuba in the first quarter of 2015 reached its highest level in history, with U.S. tourists accounting for 15 percent of all Cuban tourism. International visitors reached 3 million in 2014, bringing in $2.6 billion to the relatively poor nation and increasing jobs, as well as human contact with the outside world. 

Cuba estimates that 600,000 Americans visited Cuba last year (it’s hard to figure exactly, since many U.S. travelers enter through third nations, including Cayman). Tourism experts there say that number could grow to 1.5 million annual visitors and add $2 billion to the Cuban tourism in-flow. There is no clarity about how any redistribution of Caribbean tourists’ dollars might affect Cayman’s economy or that of any other regional destination, but tropical vacation spending has been rising in the U.S. for years. 

 

Alternative travel arrangements  

Cuba is bracing for far bigger crowds in the future, as entirely new modes of travel reach the island. In Florida, local governments and entrepreneurs in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa are exploring establishing ferry services to ports in Cuba.  

“Cuban-Americans living here can only take a very limited quantity of goods with them when they fly down to visit family back home,” a Tampa development officer said. “On a ferry, they can take all kinds of family memorabilia with them, coming and going, much cheaper than in their airline baggage or on air-freight.” Both cities are seeking investors, looking for docking space and working with state, federal and local permitting authorities. 

Though the U.S. administration said it had been toiling behind the scenes with Cuban counterparts for 18 months before President Obama’s late-2014 announcement about seeking closer relations with the island nation, it surprised the world – and drew applause from world leaders, including Pope Frances, for its efforts. 

Over the half year since then, the progress has been considerable. But Obama has said there is still much work to do to make sure the historic ideological rivals can be friends in the future. 

The U.S. president said he would not rule out making a visit to the sunlight- and music-filled country in the future.  

Some recent customers at O’Reilly 304, in Old Havana, might have sworn he had already made an appearance there. But the real Obama, speaking from the White House, said only, “Let’s see how things evolve.” 

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Cuban Yoel Marrero, who lives in Miami, dances with a group of Japanese women he has brought to Havana to promote Cuban culture. – Photo: The Washington Post
THE WASHINGTON POST

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