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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
Politics

Travel restrictions may hamper Tampa’s air service to Cuba

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TAMPA — For U.S. tourists, there are three Cubas.

There is the Cuba they are allowed to experience — the history, culture and people of its cities.

There is the Cuba they can see but cannot touch — its beach side resorts.

Then there is the socialist Cuba — the reason Americans are forbidden from enjoying the tropical locales.

Flights to Cuba from the Tampa International Airport rose from 44,711 in 2012 to 51,594 in 2013.

But some worry that unless all restrictions placed on U.S. travelers wishing to visit the island nation are abolished, Americans may lose their interest in what narrow portions they can visit and Tampa’s service to Cuba could suffer.

“The travel industry from Tampa to Cuba may have peaked,” said Al Fox, president of the Tampa-based president of the Alliance for a Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation, which lobbies for open relations with Cuba.

It may not be lobbying by pro-embargo interests that poses the greatest threat to more travel between the U.S. and Cuba, Fox said.

Rather, it could be a “been there, done that” attitude among American tourists.

Currently, American tourists without family or official business in Cuba can only travel to the island under people-to-people licenses, for trips restricted to culture and history rather than mojitos and tanning.

Under guidelines set by the Treasury Department, these visitors must work through certified travel agents and follow strict itineraries approved by the U.S. government.

American tourists spend days shuttled throughout the country via bus, visiting museums and universities and attending lectures. They get to see the countryside and beach but not for long.

Breaking the itinerary for a day at the beach or an evening in a resort is against U.S. law.

“It is ironic,” said Fox. “Those in favor of the embargo claim that Americans never see the real Cuba because its government controls what the tourists see. The fact is, it is America that controls its own tourists.”

That is not to say any visit to the island isn’t enjoyable, said Johannes Werner, editor of CubaStandard.com, an online economic publication. Most Americans he knows who find any trip there fascinating, providing a firsthand look at a lush, historic nation just 90 miles off Florida shores that was once considered taboo.

But it’s not a visit the typical tourist will make again and again, Werner said.

“After going through these regimented trips where everything is planned, they are ready to go on to the next stage and go out on their own, which is forbidden under current U.S. restrictions,” he said.

If these tourists are to continue traveling to Cuba, he said, they would need access to resorts such as Cuba’s Xanadu Mansion — a beach side golf center with breathtaking views and rooms starting at around $150.

The resort serves as a reminder of what’s behind the rift between the U.S. and Cuba.

It was built and owned by wealthy U.S. industrialist Irenee Dupont and later nationalized under socialist rule.

Then there is the price of a people-to-people trip — anywhere from $2,500-$5,000 because of the red tape and bureaucracy that travel agents must negotiate and the government fees on visas and licenses.

“It is a market limited to those with a lot of money,” Werner said. “For the money they pay they can travel through Europe and these are the types of people who will.”

Three Tampa carriers offer flights to Cuba — Island Travel & Tours, ABC Charters and Cuba Travel Services.

Bill Hauf’s Island Travel also provides the service out of Miami.

Hauf agrees it is only a matter of time before the people-to-people market dries up, yet because of business among families he doesn’t worry about keeping his planes from Miami full.

Tampa is another story.

Miami’s Cuban American population of close to 1 million dwarfs Tampa’s, which is around 80,000. And Miami’s is a newer generation, with more immediate family living in Cuba.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, just over 2,000 Cubans became legal U.S. citizens and settled in Tampa during 2012 compared to 22,000 in Miami.

Much of Tampa’s Cuban population, said the Alliance’s Fox, relocated to Tampa in the late-1800s for the cigar industry. Family remaining on the island nation are often distant cousins — nice to reconnect with but maybe not every year, he said.

“Tampa’s Cubans went to visit their cousins twice removed they haven’t seen in 50 years,” said Fox. “Fine, they have done that and most will not want to do it again. These are not relatives they are close with. They are strangers tied to them by blood.”

Currently, because it cannot find a bank to service its account, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C. has ceased issuing the necessary paperwork to travel the island nation.

Enough pre-approved visas have been issued that flights to Cuba are not immediately affected, but if a solution is not found soon, Fox said, the air carriers will feel the effects.

And if a new bank is found, it still will not turn around what Fox, Hauf and Werner believe could be a dwindling Tampa market.

Only abolishing all travel restrictions will accomplish that, they said, and such a move faces considerable opposition. Pro-embargo hardliners believe any tourist money spent in Cuba supports an oppressive regime.

“They don’t want to anger those few pro-embargo Cuban American leaders,” Fox said.

If the travel ban were lifted, Fox said, it might prove an ironic death knell for Tampa’s current charter services.

The reason: Major airlines would be drawn to serve the new market.

Hauf thinks it would take at least a decade before that happens.

Cuba would seek permission for its own national airline to serve the new market, Hauf said, and that would raise other issues — chiefly, lawsuits pending against Cuba in the U.S.

In one case, three Cuban planes were hijacked in 2003 and piloted to Key West. Rather than returning to Cuba, the planes were sold in the U.S. to satisfy part of a $27 million judgment won by a Cuban-American who unknowingly married a Cuban spy in Miami.

“Cuba would not approve of major U.S. airlines landing in their country unless the U.S. allowed them to do the same,” said Hauf. “Until these judgments are resolved, Cuba knows any plane that lands in the U.S. will be immediately seized.”

Even if this roadblock were removed, Cuba’s infrastructure couldn’t support a wave of U.S. tourists.

“Cuba would limit the number of visas,” Hauf said. “So I think the major airlines would still stay away.”

Given a chance, though, U.S. tourists would not, he added.

“Cuba has beautiful beaches and resorts, it’s a unique destination and it’s a short flight. Americans would enjoy it.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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