One year after launching charter air service between Tampa International Airport and Cuba, the flights have met expectations — and ridership is poised to grow in the coming year.
Next month, a travel service in Pinellas County will step up its program for bookings under a U.S. to Cuba travel program called People-to-People that was launched in April 2011 to allow U.S. citizens with educational interests in Cuba to visit.
That program could raise the profile of Tampa-Cuba flights. Additional Tampa-area travel service providers are preparing to participate in the program, but how many travelers might be drawn to it remains unknown.
In September, the first flights between Tampa and Cuba began under a program that allows travel for those with close family ties in Cuba.
Tampa International reported 39,736 passengers on Cuba flights between Sept. 8, 2011, when the first flight in 50 years between Havana and Tampa took off, and Aug. 31.
Service has expanded from one charter carrier to three, which fly a total of five weekly flights — four serving Havana and one serving Holguin in eastern Cuba.
"Our summer flights were completely filled," said Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours Ltd., who moved his operations from San Diego to Tampa.
"There's been a downturn since mid-August when children headed back to school, but December should be strong. Many carriers have taken a significant hit, including flights from Miami. All of us are trying to figure it out."
The good news for travelers from Tampa International — one of a dozen or so authorized U.S. airports to host Cuba charter flights — is that with competition among Island Travel & Tours, ABC Charters and Xael Charters, airfares and baggage fees have remained competitive, ranging from $379 to $435 for a round trip.
However, the Cuban government in September cracked down on excess baggage over concerns that entrepreneurs were bringing in goods for sale to restaurants rather than bringing supplies for family members. The government began to enforce a $4.55-a-pound tax for baggage weighing more than 66 pounds.
The impact of that fee on Cuba travel has yet to be determined, airline and airport officials said.
Ivar Fiskaa, owner of Scand-America International in Palm Harbor, is booking travel for the People-to-People program through a New York company and is using all three charter airlines that operate from Tampa.
"We set up the whole trip, from the Tampa flight to hotels to tours in Cuba," Fiskaa said.
The price for a five-day, four-night tour is $1,498 a person for those who qualify to participate in the People-to-People program.
Itineraries include walks though Old Havana, shopping for street food along Obispo Street, a visit to Ernest Hemingway's quarters and tours of museums and gardens, with an emphasis on mingling with Cuban residents.