An air of ex­cite­ment in Cuba

Com­mer­cial flight’s ar­rival raises hopes of broad U.S. tourism

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - By Michael Weis­senstein

SANTA CLARA, 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 Cuban cities. 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 high­t­ip­ping Amer­i­cans could trans­form the land­scape in cities like Santa Clara that have been off the well-trod tourist track for now.

“The best tourist there is is the Amer­i­can tourist,” said 25-year-old Liban Bermudez as he sold 16-yearold Sophia Comp­ton a pair of hand­made leather san­dals from his stand off Santa U.S. tourist Sophia Comp­ton looks for sou­venirs last week in Santa Clara, Cuba, where she vis­ited with her father. 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 by the dif­fi­culty of do­ing busi­ness in the is­land’s largely closed and cen­trally planned econ­omy.

The restart of com­mer­cial flights last week means 10 U.S. air­lines in­clud­ing Amer­i­can, Delta, United, South­west and JetBlue sud­denly have hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in busi­ness due to U.S.-Cuba nor­mal­iza­tion.

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 ac­tiv- ities 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 in- stantly book travel on com­mer­cial flights in­stead of ex­pen­sive, in­con­ve­nient char­ters.

The four trav­el­ers on Flight 387 without rel­a­tives in Cuba paid about $200 each to fly from Fort Laud­erdale to Santa Clara. They spent a day see­ing Che Gue­vara’s tomb and sites from Cuba’s 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 south­ern coast.

“I’ve trav­eled to 30 to 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 vis­i­tors and strug­gling to up­date in­fra­struc­ture. It’s push­ing to build new ho­tels, but de­mand will out­strip sup­ply for years to come. The gov­ern­ment has also given French com­pany Aero­ports de Paris a con­ces­sion to take over Ha­vana’s Jose Marti air­port, where pas­sen­gers of­ten wait hours to get their checked bags. But ren­o­va­tion of the air­port isn’t ex­pected to start in earnest un­til next year.

Much of the de­mand is ex­pected to be ab­sorbed by Cuba’s grow­ing non-state tourism sec­tor, where tens of thou­sands of pri­vate be­dand-break­fasts and restau­rants have emerged across the coun­try in re­cent years.

The start of flights to des­ti­na­tions like Santa Clara, Hol­guin and Ca­m­aguey is rais­ing hopes among pri­vate busi­ness peo­ple that they will be able to cap­ture a sig­nif­i­cant share of the U.S. tourist boom.

“We have to get ready and raise our stan­dards,” said Ger Gar, man­ager of a bed-and-break­fast and restau­rant in Santa Clara. “All of this is above and be­yond what ev­ery­body was plan­ning.”

‘The best tourist there is is the Amer­i­can tourist.’ Cuban ven­dor Liban Bermudez, as he sold a pair of hand­made leather san­dals

RA­MON ESPINOSA/AP

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