The U.S. airlines don't have their shit together when it comes to the lucrative market opening between the U.S. and Cuba. This morning, the NY Times reported that the major airlines are missing the initial rush. initial: first year on the lifting of the travel restrictions.
[B]efore airlines can schedule direct flights to Havana and other airports, the two countries must still negotiate a new air service agreement.Americans have been traveling to Cuba for years but the new rules that went into effect today make it much easier. Here's now:
Until that happens, travelers will have to rely on charter flights booked through specialized travel agencies, and that is not expected to change for the next 12 to 18 months, according to travel experts and industry officials. The timeline could be further complicated by opposition in Congress as well as the presidential election next year, which could delay matters in unpredictable ways.
...About 100,000 Americans already visit Cuba each year, a number that has surged since more flexible travel rules were introduced in 2011. Cubans living in the United States make an additional estimated 400,000 visits a year.
Still, the new policy means that those numbers are certain to increase. Travel agencies have already reported a jump in interest since the Obama administration announced that it was restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba last month, and they are increasing charter capacity in the coming months to address the expected growth in demand.
“This will make a huge difference in the numbers of people who can go,” said Bob Guild of Marazul Charters, a travel agency that has been organizing trips to Cuba for 36 years. “This opens up a chance for the American people to go to Cuba that they didn’t have before.”
Outside the United States, many airlines already serve Cuban destinations. Travelers can also go to Canada, Mexico, or several Caribbean countries first and take connecting flights there, a loophole that many Americans have taken to circumvent restrictions imposed by the United States, since Cuba does not ban Americans from entering.
The biggest carriers, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, among others, quickly signaled interest in Cuba after the new policy was announced, but so far have not made plans to fly there. “We look forward to expanding service into Cuba as more opportunities become available,” Delta said.
JetBlue operates charter flights from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., while American Airlines has been operating charter flights booked by travel agencies into Cuba for 15 years from Miami and Tampa, Fla. Neither is expected to schedule its own commercial flights until a new air service agreement can be established to replace an agreement dating to 1953.
“We are reviewing the changes to the Cuba travel policy and will continue to be guided by the laws and policies of the U.S. government and the governments of the countries we serve, as they evolve,” American Airlines said in a statement.
United said on Thursday that it planned to seek approval for regular flights from Newark and Houston.
...While specific trips for tourism remain officially banned, the government will no longer be able to enforce any direct oversight. The new rules therefore represent a momentous change, and there is likely to be a major touristic rush to Cuba in the coming years, according to travel specialists.
“The floodgates have opened,” Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer’s travel guide series, wrote on his blog. “Starting now, any determined American will be able to travel, without hindrance, to Cuba.”
Travelers will also be permitted to use credit cards, spend more money in Cuba, and bring back more souvenirs, including up to $100 in tobacco or alcohol.
Mr. Frommer added, “It’s obvious that Americans who honestly believe they fit within 12 permitted categories of travel for Cuba can simply pack up and go.”
• You no longer have to chose between applying or a license or sneaking into the countryBut is Cuba ready for Ma and Pa Kettle? Can typical American tourists hack the realities of Cuba? Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodrigues, reporting for the Associated Press, say Obama's new travel policy will depend more on the availability of hotel hand towels than the deranged howling of Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez.
• there are no longer restrictions on how much money you can spend in Cuba
• U.S. credit cards and debit cards will be allowed to be used in Cuba
• Americans will be able to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 worth of cigars
Not just hand towels, but working air conditioning, breakfast waffles and the hundreds of other amenities that American tourists will demand when they flood to Cuba in numbers that travel experts expect to double this year, thanks to the loosening of travel restrictions on Friday.
U.S.-based Cuba travel companies say there's simply no more room in the handful of top-end Cuban hotels that meet international standards. That means that if visitors come in numbers as great as expected, they will have to find lodging either in grim, lower-end state facilities or one of the most vibrant parts of Cuba's small, new private business sector: family-run guest houses that offer independent sources of private income to thousands of Cubans.
That scenario is exactly what Obama said he hopes to achieve. When he announced the policy on Dec. 17, the president said that the U.S. wants to be "a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous."
The first test of the new U.S. approach may come down to where new American travelers choose to lay their heads at night.
"A significant increase in U.S. travelers would overwhelm the system and overwhelm the availability of the Cubans to keep tabs and keep controls on these travelers," a U.S. official involved in the execution of the new policy told The Associated Press on Friday. "The hotels aren't going to be able to handle it. You're going to see a spillover into the private sector, which is a good thing."
Juan Hernandez Rabelo, 65, is taking English lessons three times a week to help him communicate with future clients at Casa Vitrales, an immaculately restored high-end colonial guest house he runs with his son in Old Havana.
"This is going to help our business and the country," Hernandez said of Obama's new policy. "It opens new opportunities for guest houses to absorb a greater number of tourists."
The new Treasury Department rules that went into effect Friday eliminate a burdensome and costly requirement for specially licensed tour groups to obtain federal permits to take U.S. travelers to Cuba on trips with educational itineraries that needed approval in Washington.
Most U.S. travelers still will be required to go on supervised group trips, but now virtually any U.S. company or organization can offer such trips without the paperwork and inspections that discouraged past expansion of travel to Cuba. Some tour operators, already seeing unprecedented interest in legal travel to Cuba, expect some tourists to simply ignore the restrictions.
Companies that have been organizing travel to Cuba for years say they expect legal travel to Cuba to at least double this year, from a figure of roughly 90,000 American visitors annually over recent years.
And any significant surge, they say, is guaranteed to overwhelm Cuba's travel infrastructure.
"Even with 90,000 Americans going a year it's a nightmare to get the hotel rooms," said Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel. He said his company he's seen booking double over the last three weeks, to about 1,000. He said that he, too, expected Cubans to begin investing in more guest houses that are legitimate lodging options for visiting Americans.
"You've already started to see that," he said. "In the last few years, all of a sudden you've seen people who realize if I invest a little more, increase the water pressure, then you're actually competing with a four-star hotel."
Cuban state authorities say they are confident that the country can handle a surge in tourists and that they have already been getting ready for at least 1 million Americans a year, a number they expect to come after the U.S. embargo is ended by Congress.
"The country has enough hotel capacity to absorb an increase of this magnitude. We've prepared ourselves for that day," said Jose Manuel Bisbe, president of Havanatur, one of Cuba's main state-run tourism companies.
U.S. experts say that may be overly optimistic, particularly because the U.S. ban on pure tourism means the most developed high-end destination, the Varadero beach resort about 80 miles east of Havana, effectively remains off-limits to U.S. visitors. And even Bisbe acknowledged that some of Cuba's current offerings are sub-par.
"In terms of quality of service it's certain that we have a series of problems that we have to solve," he said.
The restrictions on Cuban travel have made the island either a surreptitious destination for young people who go illegally through Canada or Mexico, or an expensive, boutique product for older and better-off Americans.
Barbara Dresner, the retired owner of a New York of clothing stores, joined a five-day Havana jazz tour that cost about $5,000 per person and said she was unpleasantly surprised by some aspects of the five-star hotel where she stayed.
"There are no washcloths," she said Thursday night. "In American hotels, they always have washcloths."
|Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana|