Travel companies set their sights on Cuba
By Doreen Hemlock and Arlene Satchell
By air and by sea, businesses prepare to take Americans to Cuba
New travel rules have created “a tsumani of interest” in Cuba
Cuba is banking on tourism as an economic engine
From cruise lines to ferries to airlines, businesses are getting in
line to shepherd masses of Americans to the long-forbidden island of Cuba.
Many hope to benefit quickly under new U.S. rules that allow
“purposeful” trips such as humanitarian or educational missions without
a license. Others are preparing for what they see as the inevitable day
when the U.S. allows open travel.
The latest to act was Carnival Corp., which announced Tuesday that it
will begin cruises to the island next May for cultural exchanges. But so
many more businesses are excited that South Florida attorney Pedro
Freyre calls it “a tsunami of interest.”
His team at Cuba Practice Group at law firm Akerman LLP has visited the
island at least 10 times this year, mainly to accompany clients looking
to develop travel-related business. He plans four more trips this summer
alone — more than his three-member team made all of last year.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Dec. 17” when President Obama
announced a more open policy toward Cuba and plans to renew diplomatic
ties, Freyre said. “We’re swamped.”
Cuba is banking on tourism as an economic engine, especially if
financially troubled Venezuela reduces support to the island. Cuba
already ranks as the second-largest tourist destination in the Caribbean
and could become tops — with open American travel.
Americans accounted for roughly one in six of Cuba’s 3 million visitors
last year, mainly Cuban-Americans visiting family. With unrestricted
U.S. travel, about 1.5 million more Americans might visit yearly, Cuban
Already under new rules this year, visits by Americans without family in
Cuba rose 36 percent to 51,458 through May 9, compared with the same
time last year, The Associated Press reported.
Carnival Corp. is angling to be the first to operate cruise service from
the U.S. to Cuba in half a century, since Washington imposed its embargo
on the communist-led nation.
Though it awaits Cuban approval, Carnival plans weeklong trips from
Miami every other week starting in May on a 710-passenger ship through
its new brand called fathom, which specializes in “social-impact travel”
such as volunteering and cultural exchange.
If demand warrants, fathom could add more frequent Cuba trips and more
ships, said Tara Russell, fathom’s president and the global impact lead
for Carnival Corp.
Others are mulling U.S-Cuba cruises soon, too.
Airline Brokers Co. of Miami received U.S. approval to operate a ferry
to Cuba this spring and recently expanded approval for cruises, said
company president Vivian Mannerud, a veteran in Cuba travel. She’s now
talking to cruise operators to offer “people-to-people” cruises, similar
to those planned by Carnival.
“There’s been a shortage of [quality] hotels in Cuba, and this would
help alleviate it,” Mannerud said.
Yet some major cruise lines are holding off on American business,
waiting for more liberal U.S. rules.
Europe’s MSC Cruises plans to base a 2,120-passenger ship in Havana for
non-U.S. travelers this winter but has no immediate plans for U.S.-Cuba
service. “Down the road when the regulations allow us to be more
proactive, we will certainly be exploring that,” said Rick Sasso,
president of MSC Cruises USA in Fort Lauderdale.
U.S. travel agents that book cruises have been fielding more calls on
Cuba this year.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest from people asking ‘How can I get there
before it opens up,'” said Vicky Garcia, co-owner of Cruise Planners, an
American Express Travel Representative in Coral Springs that has more
than 1,000 home-based franchised travel agents.
Many clients say they want an authentic Cuba experience before it
becomes too Americanized or touristy, Garcia said. Cruise Planners
agents are selling more “people-to-people” package tours now.
Cuba has been encouraging cruises, now taken mainly by Canadian,
European and Latin American visitors. The number of cruise passengers to
the island rose from 6,770 in 2012 to 37,519 last year. And it jumped to
62,183 through May this year, according to government data cited by AP.
That’s a tenfold increase in three years, but still fewer passengers
than Broward County’s Port Everglades receives on one busy winter weekend.
When Cuba might approve U.S. cruises or ferries and when the services
might start remains unclear. Among other things, the U.S. Coast Guard
still must inspect Cuban ports, operators say.
Other travel businesses
Ferries: At least seven companies have received U.S. approval since
April to operate the first ferry services from Florida to Cuba since the
1960s. Some already run services elsewhere and probably could enter Cuba
more quickly, such as Spain’s Balearia. Some without ferries will need
to partner with others. The earliest a ferry service might start would
be fall, pending Cuban approvals and other logistics, executives say.
Charter flights: Long-time operators of charter flights to Cuba are
expanding to new cities to meet rising U.S. demand. Island Travel & Tour
on Wednesday began twice-a-week flights from Orlando to Cuba. And Cuba
Travel Services offers a weekly charter to New York starting this month
using a JetBlue Airways plane. That’s on top of charters already
operated from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa.
Tour operators: Heavyweight Apple Vacations on Thursday started selling
five- and seven-night “people-to-people” packages to Cuba offered from
Miami beginning in September.
Airlines: Commercial airlines can’t offer U.S-Cuba service but are
watching developments. Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines, based in
Miramar, will consider flights to Cuba “when the travel restrictions are
lifted, and air travel from the U.S. to Cuba can be done where we
control our own prices and schedules — and we can offer the absolute
lowest price,” said spokesman Paul Berry.
Hotels: The U.S. embargo bans investment in Cuba, but U.S. hotel
companies see rivals from overseas already operating there. Hotel giant
Hilton Worldwide is interested in Cuba when conditions allow, as is
Driftwood Hospitality Management of North Palm Beach.
“Given time, this is the next Cancun or Costa Rica,” said Carlos
Rodriguez, who spearheads Driftwood’s hotel development division, noting
Cuba’s proximity to Miami, rich history, famous beaches and forbidden
mystique that will pique huge interest from American tourists.
The big question is when open U.S. travel will be permitted to the
island of 11 million residents.
Bills are pending in Congress to lift the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, and
they’re gaining support — even as the U.S. embargo seems unlikely to be
lifted in its entirety any time soon.
“Open travel is probably the most likely to happen before anything else
because it’s the simplest ask in Congress,” attorney Freyre said.
“The travel ban is the one that most sticks in the craw of American
people,” who value their freedom of movement and now can travel to
China, Vietnam and elsewhere, he said. “I think the odds are relatively
good that in the next couple of years, the travel ban would be lifted.”
With U.S. sales of food and medicine to Cuba already allowed for
humanitarian reasons, the embargo could progressively be hollowed out,
much like Swiss cheese, many observers believe.
“There will be a time when the holes are so large that there’s almost no
cheese,” Freyre joked.
In the meantime, Freyre is trying to handle the growing business
interest in Cuba. He figures his Cuba practice group will visit the
island every month for the rest of this year — maybe every week.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 305-810-5009 or @dhemlock on Twitter
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