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Travel companies set their sights on Cuba

Travel companies set their sights on Cuba

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 this month 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 Barack 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 officials estimate.

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.

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.

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: Longtime operators of charter flights to Cuba are expanding to new cities to meet rising U.S. demand. Island Travel & Tour this month 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 this month 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.


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