August 3, 2009
N.O. pursues status as port of entry to island nation
by Emilie Bahr
Romi Gonzalez, a New Orleans lawyer, looks forward to the day when he
can hop on a plane in the Crescent City and arrive an hour or so later
in his native Havana. And he hopes that day might finally be within reach.
Gonzalez, who has been agitating for 15 years to get flight service
between New Orleans and Cuba, and others are lobbying to get the city
approved as a port of entry to the island that has been off-limits to
most Americans for decades.
The designation, overseen by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of
Foreign Assets Control and several other federal agencies, is held by
just three U.S. cities: Miami, New York and Los Angeles.
Mayor Ray Nagin late last month said the issue of adding New Orleans to
that list came up during his recent trip to Washington, D.C., during
meetings with federal transportation and State Department officials. He
said, however, that those officials offered no commitment or timeline
for making a decision.
Mayor's Office representatives did not immediately respond to questions
related to the process or the city's chances of landing flights to Cuba.
Sal Figueroa, director of international relations for the economic
development nonprofit Greater New Orleans Inc., said the benefits of
such an arrangement for New Orleans could be tremendous.
"You would have people from all over the country" coming in to the city
en route to the island, he said.
GNO Inc. President and CEO Michael Hecht said the agency has made a
priority of expanding the roster of international flights available out
of New Orleans and considers increased flight connectivity between the
city and Latin America especially key to ongoing economic development
"New Orleans used to be known as the gateway to the Americas and this
had as much to do with commerce as it did with culture," Hecht said.
"What we're trying to do is get back to our historic strength … to
that place where we have a competitive advantage."
The top limiting factor in expanding the city's trade with the Americas
is flight accessibility, said Hecht, whose agency has been in
discussions with carriers to open a flight from New Orleans Louis
Armstrong International Airport to Cancun with possible connecting
service to Belize. And he said various airlines have expressed interest
in launching flights to other Latin American locales, including Rio de
Janeiro. He declined to identify any of the interested companies.
Gonzales said it is an especially auspicious time to start a flight
service between New Orleans and Cuba given President Obama's decision
earlier this year to rescind restrictions on relatives traveling to Cuba.
Previously, Cuban-Americans had been limited to one trip every three
years. Most other Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba only under
special humanitarian or journalistic visas, though bills pending in
Congress call for lifting those restrictions, too.
But despite growing interest in the prospects of air travel to Cuba, the
likelihood of New Orleans securing gateway status remains unclear.
The Treasury Department deferred questions on the matter to U.S.
Customs, which hadn't responded by press time.
Gonzalez, who said he has been working with a Miami-based charter
company interested in operating flights to Cuba out of New Orleans, is
frustrated by the pace of the decision-making process. He worries that
if the designation isn't granted soon, the benefits to the city might be
diminished since other major cities, among them Key West, Tampa and
Houston, are also angling for the title.
"If Houston gets the designation, we're dead," Gonzalez said. "We can't
compete, because they've got all the connecting flights."•
New Orleans CityBusiness — The Business Newspaper of Metropolitan New
Orleans (3 August 2009)