Charter Flights to Cuba Surge
BY MAX KUTNER / FEBRUARY 11, 2015 12:18 PM EST
It’s been a busy few weeks for the half-dozen or so companies licensed
to charter flights between the United States and Cuba. In December,
President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations
with Cuba, and the easing of travel and trade restrictions started in
mid-January. “We have just been inundated,” says Bob Guild, vice
president of Marazul Charters, which has been around for 35 years and
flies mostly between Miami and a few Cuban cities.
In the second half of January 2014, Guild says his company received 30
requests for group travel. During that period this year—the first two
weeks under the eased rules—the company got 1,300 requests from groups
of Americans seeking to visit the island. In fact, Guild says he is
discouraging people from packing their bags until April or May. “Cuba is
already filled, as far as their hotels go,” he says.
Air service agreements between the two countries date back to 1953.
Until last month, the U.S. had limited air travel to Cuba to companies
holding special licenses and operating non-regular flights. As Jimmy
Carter and other presidents expanded Cuba travel categories beginning in
the late 1970s, companies such as Marazul, Gulfstream, ABC, Xael, Wilson
and Cuba Travel Services grew to dominate the market.
In 2003 and 2004, President George W. Bush set restrictions on family
visits and cut back cultural licenses for Americans. “He hit us really
hard,” says Tessie Aral of ABC Charters. “We had to lay off half our
staff.” The industry bounced back in 2009 and 2011, when Obama began
easing restrictions. Michael Zuccato of Cuba Travel Services estimates
his business is up more than 100 percent since 2011.
Marazul isn’t the only company cashing in. Zuccato says he represented
his company at a travel show, and a week later, “I’m just now getting my
voice back.” His company is adding a weekly flight from New York City to
Havana in March.
A Tampa International Airport spokeswoman says that she expects charter
operators there to add additional flights to Cuba in the coming weeks,
and that GoToCuba.org, a website the airport created to provide Cuba
travel information, has seen 1,580 percent more traffic since before
Obama’s announcement in December.
A plan to renegotiate the 62-year-old air service agreement between the
two countries could clear the way for major commercial airlines to start
flights. American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United have
all expressed interest in flying to Cuba, and representatives from the
Priceline Group and Orbitz tell Newsweek they’re eager to get Cuba on
their booking websites. Kayak, a travel search engine under the
Priceline umbrella, has already added Cuba hotel and flight data to its
Still, the charters have loyal followings and have weathered tough
storms—extremists bombed Marazul’s offices in 1988 and 1996. Lillian
Manzor, a University of Miami associate professor and expert on
U.S.-Cuba travel policies, says the smaller operations have “a long
experience and tradition of working with Cuba” and “an experiential
know-how that they’ve already had to deal with for 20-odd years that the
[major] American companies don’t have.”
Source: Charter Flights to Cuba Surge –