US travel industry carefully eyeing Cuba tourism

Javier Galeano/AP File PhotoPresident Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday

Javier Galeano/AP File PhotoPresident Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday

Cuba was once a haven for sun-seeking American tourists. Beautiful beaches, lively casinos and late-night dancing made it the perfect getaway, only an hour's flight from Miami.

But the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and the subsequent Cold War embargo of the communist island nation put an end to that.

President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday of plans to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba doesn't suddenly lift the ban on U.S. tourism. It does, however, give hope to airlines, hotel chains and cruise companies — all which have been quietly eyeing a removal of the travel ban — that they soon will be able to bring U.S. tourists to the Caribbean nation.

“Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, so there's some exciting possibilities,” said Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Carnival Corp. He said “some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country,” although other issues “need to be taken into consideration if this market opens up.”

Senior Obama administration officials said that travel to Cuba for tourist activities will remain prohibited.

A handful of international companies already operate in Cuba. For instance, Spanish hotel chain Melia has 26 properties on the island.

While most Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba and spending money there, close relatives of Cubans, academics and people on accredited cultural education programs can visit. And there is a tiny, but robust business in transporting people to Cuba.

Most operators are tiny storefront travel agents in the Miami area with names like Alina's Travel Co. and Gina's Travel Services. Those agents then charter planes from carriers like American Airlines to transport the groups.

About 170,000 authorized travelers made the trip last year, according to the Department of Commerce.

“Once people get a glimpse of Cuba, they always want to see more,” said Katharine Bonner, a senior executive at Connecticut-based tour operator Tauck, which runs tours there under a cultural exchange license. “Americans are very curious about a country that is 90 miles off our coast but has been off limits for so long.”

It is that isolation, in part, that is so appealing. There's no McDonalds, no Starbucks. Bonner said once travel opens, there will be a rush to see Cuba before its gets “Americanized.”

“It's almost like a country that has been frozen in time,” she said.

U.S. airlines have been quietly dipping their toes in Cuba's warm waters for years.

American Airlines dominates many of the routes to Latin America with its hub in Miami. It's run charters to Cuba for more than 15 years, according to spokeswoman Martha Pantin. It now operates 20 weekly flights from Miami to Havana, Holguin, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos and from Tampa to Havana and Holguin.

JetBlue Airways started flying Cuba charters in September 2011. It's a very small part of the airline's business; just four weekly flights on Airbus A320s with 50 to 80 customers, either to Havana or Santa Clara. The planes typically seat 150 passengers. Besides pilots and flight attendants, JetBlue adds charter representatives and a mechanics to each Cuba flight.

CEO David Barger told The Associated Press last year that the charters are a way of “just understanding what happens, if in fact there's a normalization.”

Delta Air Lines, which operated more than 240 charter flights between October 2011 and December 2012, said it has no immediate plans to fly to Cuba. But, spokesman Anthony Black noted that “having served there through our charter operations, the groundwork has been laid for us to possibly serve the market if an opportunity becomes available.”

The one immediate change for licensed travelers: they will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol. Limited amounts of Cuban cigars might be the new hot souvenir.

Travel booking site Orbitz quickly jumped into the fray Wednesday, saying that the decision will hopefully pave the way for open travel between Cuba and the U.S. for both country's citizens.

“We look forward to the day — hopefully soon — when all Americans have the opportunity to travel to Cuba,” CEO Barney Harford said in a statement. “There are numerous economic, social and cultural benefits that will flow from free and open access and our customers are eager to visit Cuba.”

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