New air links raise hopes in Washington and Cuba
The first off JetBlue 387 were the TV cameramen, the U.S. secretary of
transportation and the airline executives.
As the tropical sun beat the tarmac, the VIPs traded congratulations on
the arrival of the first commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba in more
than 50 years. Away from the cameras, a small but potentially more
important group made its way through Santa Clara's single-terminal
airport: a pair of backpackers from Oregon and a book editor from
Chicago and his 16-year-old daughter – the first U.S. tourists on the
newly reestablished flights.
By December, the four will have a lot of company, with some 300 direct
flights a week scheduled from the U.S. to 10 cities across Cuba.
America's biggest airlines and the Obama administration hope the planes
will carry hundreds of thousands of U.S. travelers, both Cuban-Americans
visiting family and sightseers who will turn the largest island in the
Caribbean back into a major U.S. vacation destination.
For U.S. airlines it's a chance to move into an untapped market less
than an hour's flight from Miami. For Cubans, it means waves of
demanding but high-tipping Americans could transform the landscape in
cities like Santa Clara that have been off the well-trod tourist track
"The best tourist there is, is the American tourist," said 25-year-old
Libán Bermúdez as he sold 16-year-old Sophia Compton a pair of handmade
leather sandals from his stand off Santa Clara's main plaza. "They're
the ones that buy the most."
For President Barack Obama, the reestablishment of commercial air links
with Cuba is the last major chance to make a key part of his foreign
policy legacy irreversible before he leaves office.
In the year since the U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations,
government ties have grown quickly, generating a string of bilateral
agreements on issues from environmental protection to public health.
Commerce remains stalled by the 55-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba,
and the difficulty of doing business in the island's largely closed and
centrally planned economy.
The restart of commercial flights on Wednesday means 10 U.S. airlines
including American Airlines, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue
suddenly have hundreds of millions of dollars in business due to
The Obama administration finalized the last of the new routes, 20 a day
to Havana, the same day Flight 387 touched down in Santa Clara. A
requirement that the airlines start service within 90 days means all the
new Cuba flights will have to be running a month before Obama leaves office.
Pure tourism remains illegal under U.S. regulations that allow 12
categories of travel to Cuba including religious and sports activities
and educational travel promoting "people-to-people" contact. For
Americans without family ties to Cuba, the most popular form of travel
has been on tightly focused educational trips organized in conjunction
with the Cuban government. The Obama administration lifted that group
requirement in March, leaving Americans free to travel to Cuba as long
as they can credibly describe their trips as educational.
As a result, the ban on tourism has become effectively unenforceable,
something that many more Americans are likely to realize now that they
can instantly book travel on commercial flights instead of expensive,
The four travelers on Flight 387 without relatives in Cuba paid about
$200 each to fly from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. They spent
Wednesday seeing Che Guevara's tomb and sites from Cuba' 1959
revolution. Then Stephen Compton and his daughter Sophia headed to
Havana. Keane Daly and Taimairie Locke boarded a bus to the colonial
city of Trinidad and the waterfalls and beaches of Cuba's central
"I've traveled to 30-35 countries and this is probably one of the
friendliest places I've been to," Daly, a 25-year-old University of
Oregon geology graduate student, said Saturday evening. "I was expecting
maybe some hostility but it's actually the opposite. People are really
excited about Americans coming to Cuba."
Most of the non-official passengers on Flight 387 were Cuban-Americans –
among the nearly 400,000 who already visit family in Cuba each year.
The number of U.S. travelers without family ties to Cuba is already on
track to at least triple to 300,000 this year.
Strapped for cash as subsidized oil from Venezuela dwindles, the Cuban
government is welcoming the wave of new visitors and struggling to
update infrastructure that's already overwhelmed. It's pushing to build
new hotels, but demand will outstrip supply for years to come. The
government has also given Aeroports de Paris, the French company that
manages Paris' airports, a concession to take over Havana's José Martí
airport, where passengers can often wait hours to get their checked
bags. But renovation of the airport isn't expected to start in earnest
until next year, well after commercial flights being arriving there from
Much of the demand is expected to be absorbed by Cuba's growing
non-state tourism sector, where tens of thousands of private
bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants have emerged across the country in
The start of flights to lesser-known destinations like Santa Clara,
Holguín and Camagüey is raising hopes among private business people that
they will be able to capture a significant share of the US. tourist boom
that's been concentrated until now in Havana and a circuit of popular
destinations within a few hours' drive.
"We have to get ready and raise our standards," said Ger Gar manager of
a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant in central Santa Clara. "All of this
is above and beyond what everybody was planning."
Source: New air links raise hopes in Washington and Cuba | In Cuba Today