When it comes to Cuba travel, Florida is the linchpin

 

Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald

 

Miami has long been travel central when it comes to trips to Cuba. In December - the peak of holiday travel to the island - there were 394 departures of charter flights from Miami International Airport.

 

Charters are flying to more Cuban cities than ever before and the charter industry has consolidated in Florida with flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, too.

 

"I wouldn't be surprised if there are 20 flights leaving from Florida on New Year's Day alone," Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, said on New Year's Eve. It turned out to be 16 flights, including two from Tampa, on the first day of 2014.

 

Seven charter companies compete for passengers in Florida, which is now the only place in the nation where travelers can catch regular charter flights to Cuba.

 

But travel to the island also has changed in other ways, with new travel rules issued by Cuba in 2013 and record numbers of travelers heading to Cuba from the United States in the past year.

 

When the Obama administration reauthorized people-to-people trips to Cuba in 2011, it also expanded the number of cities authorized to serve as U.S. gateways for Cuba travel from three to 15. Charter companies enthusiastically began making plans to serve new markets and a boom in Cuba travel was expected.

 

But efforts to start charter service from cities such as Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Juan, Puerto Rico, have all fallen by the wayside. Currently there aren't even flights from the traditional gateway of New York.

 

Although some charter companies say they are still interested in trying to offer flights from cities beyond Florida, they say they'll do it only if they can make the finances work. The reality is that now Cuba charters are only economically feasible from U.S. cities near communities with large Cuban-American populations.

 

Even though 98,050 Americans traveled to Cuba in 2012 on people-to-people tours designed to increase links with the Cuban people, and almost as many took the tours through Nov. 15, 2013, Cuban-Americans visiting family, and increasingly to do business in Cuba, account for most of the trips.

 

In 2012, 475,936 Cuban-Americans traveled to the island; through Nov. 15, 2013, the figure was 471,994, making it likely that the 2012 number will be surpassed.

 

Miami-based Havana Consulting Group estimates that combined Cuban-American and people-to-people travelers will probably exceed 600,000 in 2013 - a boost for Cuba, which experienced a slowdown in European travel last year.

 

After a disappointing October when international visitors to Cuba fell to 167,977, Cuba's National Office of Statistics and Information recently reported that travel had rebounded in November with 234,266 foreign tourists. Canada accounted for 38.9 percent of November visitors.

 

With the November increase, Cuban tourism officials said they expected Cuba would finish the year with numbers similar to 2012 when it had 2.8 million international visitors.

 

But when it comes to travel from the United States to the communist island, Miami remains the linchpin. Although three charter companies compete on Cuba routes from Tampa, currently only one, Xael Charters, offers twice-weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana.

 

In contrast, there were 293 departures to Cuba from MIA in November, compared to 231 in November 2012. During the December rush, the number of Cuba departures from MIA exceeded December 2012 numbers by more than 100 flights.

 

The charter companies also have spread their wings beyond the Cuban capital and now offer direct flights from Miami to Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Holguiin and Santa Clara.

 

In late November, however, it appeared the holiday travel season was in jeopardy. The Cuban Interests Section announced on Nov. 26 that it was suspending consular services until further notice because its U.S. bank, M&T, was getting out of the business of handling financial services for diplomatic missions and it had been unable to find another bank.

 

Less than two weeks later, the Interests Section said that M&T had extended its deadline and would accept deposits of Cuban fees for visas and passports until February 17 before finally closing Cuba's accounts on March 1.

 

But there was plenty of angst among potential travelers for a few weeks, said charter operators.

 

"There was acute awareness on the part of the Cubans that the busiest season of the year was coming up. Cuba knew it had to solve the problem and they did, and we're confident they will come up with a more permanent solution," said Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours.

 

Island Travel recently moved its headquarters from Tampa to Miami. "You really can't be in the business without being in Miami," Hauf said.

 

The charter company now offers six flights a week from Miami to Havana and three weekly flights from Tampa to the Cuban capital.

 

Island Travel had hoped to begin service from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2012 but the flights never got off the ground.

 

"We are committed to do that flight but because it's not a Cuban-American market, it's going to take a good deal of promotion and education to let people know they are eligible to travel to Cuba," Hauf said.

 

Cuban-Americans are allowed to travel freely to Cuba, but going to Cuba and spending money is prohibited for most Americans unless they fall into certain categories such as those on humanitarian and religious missions, journalists, and people on professional research and academic trips.

 

People-to-people visits, which are supposed to be "purposeful" trips designed to promote the free flow of information with everyday Cubans - rather than vacations on the beach, also are allowed.

 

Opening Cuba travel to all Americans would help make travel from the other U.S. gateways feasible, Hauf said.

 

Cuba Travel Services received landing permission from Cuba for charter service from San Juan, Puerto Rico; Houston, and Fort Lauderdale in 2011. But today it isn't flying any of those routes.

 

CTS, which has offices in Miami and California, has expanded in Florida, however. It started service to Havana and Santa Clara from Tampa in December, and also serves Santa Clara, Havana, Camaguey, Cienfuegos and Santiago from MIA.

 

"The finances didn't make sense from the other gateways," said CTS's Zuccato. In early 2013, CTS tried service from Los Angeles to Havana. It's still interested in the route and would like to "reinstate it again when the time is right."

 

One of the issues that make service difficult from other authorized gateways is the intricacies of leasing planes, said Zuccato.

 

Although there is no regularly scheduled commercial air service to Cuba, airlines such as American, Delta and JetBlue are permitted to lease their aircraft to the Cuba charter companies.

 

"To find an aircraft that is available for a few hours a day to make a trip from Miami to Havana is a lot easier than trying to find an aircraft that is available for 12 hours a day for a trip from California to Cuba," Zuccato said.

 

With so many discount airlines serving Florida airports, charter operators trying to operate from other gateways also found it difficult to compete on price for travelers who could get cheap flights to Miami or Fort Lauderdale and then board charters to Cuba.

 

CTS also is interested in the New York metropolitan market, but said its preference would be to fly out of Newark, N.J., closer to New Jersey's large Cuban-American population. But so far, the U.S. hasn't authorized Newark as a gateway for Cuba charters.

 

Zuccato said CTS plans to begin the process of seeking authorization for Newark sometime in 2014.

 

The other big travel development in 2013 was Cuba's overhaul of its migration and travel rules. On Jan. 14, Cuba removed nearly all restrictions on travel by its citizens.

 

Although the number of Cubans making foreign trips has increased, it hasn't been much of a boon for U.S. charter companies, said Hauf. "The tickets are sold in Cuba and we get just a modest fee for carrying passengers from Havana," he said.

 

 

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