South Florida sees upswing in family trips to Cuba

Nildo Herrera drew the stares of fellow passengers and airline ticket agents as he checked into his recent Havana flight at Miami International Airport wearing five hats, one atop another.

``One is for my grandson, another for my son and the rest for other relatives,'' the smiling 75-year-old Hialeah resident explained to a bemused Vivian Mannerud, a local Cuba travel industry executive handling his boarding.

Herrera was one of the thousands of travelers who swarm MIA's Concourse F pushing carts precariously loaded with mountains of suitcases and duffel bags, all tightly wrapped in blue plastic, as they inch their way to ticket counters to pick up boarding passes for Cuba flights.

The scenes are reminiscent of the days when MIA filled up with tens of thousands of exiles on early family-reunification flights in the late 1970s and early '80s. Family travel gradually dwindled as U.S.-Cuba relations cooled.

Now, five months after Congress loosened strict Bush-era rules for family visits to Cuba, the numbers of travelers to the island is up dramatically, South Florida travel executives say.

Between April and June, about 55,000 people traveled to Cuba, compared to 30,000 in the three previous months, before the restrictions were lifted. The number of travelers is expected to hit 200,000 by year's end, about double the yearly figures during the Bush restrictions. And travel executives expect the numbers to spike even higher now that new rules announced by the Obama administration -- which lift all restrictions on family visits to Cuba -- have taken effect.

The new rules mean that those with family in Cuba can visit as often and for as long as they like. Previous rules restricted visits to as few as once every three years.

``No question, there is a noticeable increase in travel to Cuba,'' said Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, one of the oldest Cuba charter airline companies.

The upswing has prompted one veteran Cuba travel executive to come out of retirement, and persuaded charter companies to add flights -- for a total of about 30 to 35 per week, compared to about 15 to 18 last year.

Cities currently authorized to handle Cuba charter flights are New York, Los Angeles and Miami -- with the bulk of flights leaving from MIA. Several other cities, including Key West and New Orleans, are seeking authority for Cuba-bound travel.

Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers in Coral Gables, symbolizes the renewed interest in Cuba travel.

She is the daughter of Fernando Fuentes Coba, South Florida pioneer of the Cuba travel business, who started island charter flights in 1978.

Mannerud partially retired in 2000 to fight breast cancer. With her disease now in remission, she decided to return to the business after the Obama administration announced the lifting of travel restrictions, and reopened her charter business in May.

MIA ticket counters that handle Cuba trips are once again full of baggage-laden travelers waiting to board planes bound for Havana and other Cuban cities.

For many it's a familiar routine, but for others the trip feels like an adventure because it's their first time in Cuba.

``I can't wait,'' said Manuel Bustillo, a Colombia-born air-conditioning repair technician in Miami, traveling for the first time with his Cuban-American wife Maribel Pérez and her 12-year-old daughter Nisvelys. Pérez has traveled to Cuba four times in the past but had not returned for a few years because of restrictions.

Bustillo, 47, said the loosening of travel rules inspired him and his wife to book their flight and spend the more than $5,000 a typical Cuba family trip requires.

The bulk of the money, he said, went on clothes, medical supplies and food for her family in Quivicán, south of Havana.

When the family arrived in Cuba they were picked up at José Martí International Airport by Pérez's family -- all crammed into a green 1952 Pontiac, which belonged to her late father José.

Pérez and her mother, Teresita, hugged each other and cried before the Cuba family and their Miami guests drove in the old car to Quivicán, about 25 miles from Havana.

``It was a very emotional trip, and we got to see Cuba up close and personal,'' Bustillo said. ``It was quite an experience.''

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla of El Nuevo Herald contributed to this report. A Miami Herald staff writer also reported from Havana. The name of the reporter was withheld because the journalist lacked the visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island. The government routinely denies Herald requests for such visas.

Related stories from Miami Herald