Cuba, so tempting with its rum drinks and beaches, so long off-limits for Americans, is about to become a little more accessible to New York area travelers.
Starting next week, tour operator Cuba Travel Services will begin offering what it says is the first regularly scheduled direct charter service from New York to Havana since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with the island nation in December.
With one weekly flight, Cuba Travel Services is trying to tap the New York area’s large Cuban-American population. It’s a market that has lured other charter operators in the past only to see them pull out amid periodic chills in the relationship between the U.S. and the Caribbean country. The U.S. has had an embargo on Cuba for more than 50 years.
“There’s a lot more activity, or at least interest, to do business with Cuba,” said Peter Quinter, chairman of the customs and international trade law group at legal firm GrayRobinson in Miami.
New York is a departure from the focus of charter operators in the past. Most have been concentrated in Florida, offering bundled airfares with insurance and travel taxes to help Americans take advantage of the limited opportunities to visit Cuba. Some airlines also offer charter service from cities such as Miami and Tampa.
A diplomatic thaw, which eased restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, is giving new incentive for charters to try again, according to Robert Mann, head of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York.
“Right out of the gate there’s a lot of people that are interested in doing it. But there’s a lot of nuances to it: legal nuances and operational nuances,” Cuba Travel Services General Manager Michael Zuccato said in an interview last week.
On Tuesdays beginning March 17, Cuba Travel Services will offer seats on a Boeing Co. 737-800 operated by Sun Country Airlines, capable of transporting 145 passengers from John F. Kennedy International airport to Havana.
The $849 round-trip ticket covers the airfare, Cuban medical insurance and U.S. departure taxes, all necessary fees to complete the excursion in what is still regulated travel to the country.
New Jersey and New York are home to the third and fourth-largest Cuban American populations, according to the 2010 census. Florida tops the ranks, followed by California.
While the New York charter flights might signal a steady trickle of travelers from family members, journalists, and humanitarians, the floodgates to mass tourism -- and U.S. commercial flights -- won’t be opened until Congress approves a U.S.-Cuba accord and new air service agreements are negotiated.
Trips for leisurely strolling through Havana’s barrios and basking on the beach for pure tourism are still banned.
Commercial flights to the island may come within the year, according to Quinter. Diplomats met for a second-round of negotiations in late February, and voiced optimism that an accord may even be reached by April. The main impediment, from Cuba’s point of view, is its listing by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Every month, hundreds of people from the 12 categories of travelers cleared for trips to Cuba fly to the island. In January, about 250 flights took off from the U.S. to Cuba and 193 Cuba-bound planes flew last month, according to industry-data tracker MasFlight.
As relations continue to ease, aviation consultant Mann estimates that flight activity to the island might ramp up in five to 10 years once tourism infrastructure is in place to support growing demand.
Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp. and American Airlines Group Inc. have all signaled that they are interested in offering commercial flights once it becomes legal.
“It’s a natural market for U.S. airlines to want to fly there,” said Zuccato of Cypress, California-based Cuba Travel Services. “It’s a transition, I think, and once those things are done, it’ll be a good market for them for sure.”