Is Cuba about to become the next tourist hot spot?
Not immediately, say travel industry experts — though tour groups that operate legally in the country report spikes in interest following President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the U.S. government will make it easier for Americans to visit the island.
And several operators that have permission to bring Americans under current restrictions — only 12 categories of people are allowed to visit — urged travelers to make plans sooner rather than later to experience Cuba’s old-world charm before investment and increased tourism change its character.
“Visit Cuba in 2015 Before the Crowds,” warned a flash deal from Travelzoo promoting an eight-night package for $2,999 per person.
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Road Scholar, a nonprofit educational travel program, said trips to Cuba were already sold out for January and February before the announcement.
“With the news, we automatically got a huge jump,” said JoAnn Bell, senior vice president of programs. “It was our No.1e seller yesterday.”
Bell said the group immediately called its travel service provider to increase capacity in April and May, based on the influx of calls that came in after Wednesday’s news broke.
“I think if you want to see what Cuba was, you’re going to have to go in the next year or two,” Bell said.
Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, said the new policies and increased travel by Americans to Cuba could also dramatically change the business that gets them there.
Legal trade of many items that Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs use in their small businesses also could pump up the demand for cargo carried in the bellies of charter flights.
Currently, several small companies compete fiercely for the air charter business between Cuba and the United States and price-cutting has become frequent in the past year.
The charter companies often lease the off-duty planes of U.S. commercial airlines, and aircraft belonging to major airlines fly to Cuba every day under these leasing arrangements.
Although the Obama administration expanded the number of cities authorized to serve as U.S. travel gateways to Cuba from three to 15 in 2011, practically all the business is now concentrated in Miami.
“I think we’re seeing the beginning of the end of the current air charter business,” Mannerud said.
She said that airlines such as Delta and American already are licensed as carrier service providers, which would allow them to launch their own charter service to Cuba. They have held the licenses for years but have not chosen to use them.
“I think we’ll see the major carriers start going,” Mannerud said.
But not everyone agrees. Bill Hauf, president and owner of Island Travel and Tours, which flies six weekly charter from Miami to Cuba, said, “The charter companies should be flying for many years to come.”
“I think we should pick up some more business” as a result of the president’s announcement, Hauf said.
Although the Office of Foreign Assets Control is still in the process of writing new travel regulations covered by President Obama’s announcement, Hauf said he thinks it will do away with licenses for so-called people-to-people travel operators and give Americans freer rein to plan their own itineraries to Cuba.
The people-to-people operators often charge high fees for fully hosted travel that is supposed to promote interactions with the Cuban people and be meaningful travel rather than catching-the-rays holidays.
Even though some of the commercial airlines do hold charter licenses, “they haven’t executed them because the charter business is not really what they do,” Hauf said.
Pedro Freyre, an international lawyer at Akerman, said to date commercial airlines haven’t found Cuba charters a “particularly enticing business.”
But he said when diplomatic relations are renewed between the two countries, it could provide “political cover and political comfort for the airlines and they may not view the business as being as risky.”
Commercial airlines also would have to secure landing rights from the Cuban government before they could begin charter travel.
In that sense, the current Cuban charter operators may have an advantage over the commercial airlines. “The current operators know the market and they know the Cubans — and they already have the permits,” he said. “I think increased business for charter operators is a golden nugget” in the Obama administration’s new Cuba policy.
Mannerud’s company used to be a major player in the Cuba charter business. But in November 2012, Cuba abruptly suspended landing rights for Airline Brokers. Now she sells tickets to Cuba on other charter airlines and makes Cuba travel arrangements for visitors.
In April 2012, someone firebombed her office in what the FBI told her was a case of “domestic terrorism.” She said despite the prospect of increased demand, she has no interest in returning to the Cuban charter business.
She expects U.S. travel to the island will increase under the Obama administration’s new policies, but adds, “I need to see the regulations. That will be very important.”
The administration has said it is in the process of writing new rules and the changes will be rolled out in the coming weeks as they are completed.
Some smaller ports of entry say they don’t expect major changes until travel restrictions are fully lifted.
Key West International Airport is among the airports authorized by the U.S. government as a port of entry for Cuba, but currently, no carriers fly charters between the two destinations, said Peter Horton, outgoing airport director at Key West International Airport.
“Until it is as easy to fly to Cuba as it is to the Bahamas, I don’t see much of a market developing here,” said Horton, who is retiring from his job before the end of the year. “As long as the restrictions are in place, it is still difficult. But if they remove the restrictions, I think you will see charters.”
Mambi Travel was the last company to launch charter flights from Key West to Cuba, about a year ago, but the flights were sporadic. It has been several months since the company’s last departure, Horton said.
“The flights they started did not continue,” he said.
He said Fort Lauderdale-based Silver Airways has expressed interest in flying to Cuba.
“We are very much interested in exploring flights that we can offer point-to-point from our hub cities in our Florida home,” Silver Airways Chief Executive Sami Teittinen said in a statement. “And Cuba, along with other Southeastern U.S. destinations are perfect examples of this.”
Other travel companies, including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and Carnival Corp., all expressed interest in operating in Cuba this week, according to the Associated Press.
“They obviously are chomping at the bit,” said Christopher P. Baker, author of the upcoming Moon Cuba guidebook and a Cuba expert who leads people-to-people programs for National Geographic. “The important thing for them is that they now see there is a potential game changer in Congress; the dialogue has shifted.”
Q: Can U.S. citizens vacation in Cuba?
A: Probably not. The president’s announcement doesn’t open the door to most American travelers.
Q: Who can visit?
A: The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees travel to Cuba. There are 12 categories of people who are allowed to visit. They include close relatives of Cubans, academics, those traveling on official government business, those on humanitarian or religious missions, journalists and people on accredited cultural education programs.
Q: I fit into one of those groups. Where can I book a flight?
A: It’s not that simple. The government gives out licenses to tour operators who then help travelers obtain visas and sell spots on trips to Cuba. American Airlines, JetBlue and Sun Country offer charter flights to the Cuban cities of Havana, Holguin, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, but the only way onto those planes is through one of these operators.
Q: Are there other ways for Americans to visit Cuba?
A: The Cuban government doesn’t prohibit Americans from visiting. So for years, intrepid travelers have broken the U.S. law by entering Cuba via Mexico or Canada and asking officials not to stamp their passports.