CubaNews / September 2002
By Larry Luxner
U.S. passengers hoping to circumvent the travel ban and fly to Cuba will soon have the option of connecting seamlessly and cheaply via Nassau to Havana from three Florida cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
The four-times-a-week chartered service will be launched Oct. 17 by Bahamasair, in conjunction with the Toronto-based Havana Flying Club (HFC), which is handling all sales and reservations for the Cuba flights.
Yet there seems to be some question as to whether the flights are kosher under U.S. law.
HFC’s manager, Julio Erhart, says the company is registered in the Bahamas and conducts all its business from Canada. Its services are designed not for Canadians — who can already fly to Cuba directly — but for Cuban-Americans and U.S. tourists who want to visit the island in violation of the travel ban.
“In Canada, we don’t care if you have permission to go or not. The passengers have to be conscious of U.S. laws. If you have permission, no problem,” said Erhart.
“If you’re just a regular, curious person visiting Cuba, you will be questioned [by U.S. authorities] and will have to respond to those questions. But we know nothing will happen, because the court in charge of prosecuting violations doesn’t exist.”
Sam Blythe, who owns HFC, insists that the combination of Bahamasair flights from either Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando to Nassau, and then from Nassau to Havana, will allow people to fly from Florida to Havana without the requirements of a license.
In a phone interview from Toronto, Blythe told CubaNews that HFC “is able to serve a large group of people who are legally allowed to go to Cuba but are not required to have the physical licenses in their hands in order to fly with us.” Such licenses are required in order for passengers to board the more expensive direct charter flights from Miami to Havana. Maybe so, but John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., has his own doubts about the venture.
“We’re notifying our members that if you’re licensed to travel to Cuba, it doesn’t matter how you go. You can swim there,” Kavulich said. “But I called their toll-free number and identified myself. Based on what they’ve told me, this service does not create compliance where compliance doesn’t exist.”
HFS operates through its general agent, South Wind Travel & Tours Ltd., a “fully registered and regulated Canadian company un-der the Travel Industry Council of Ontario.”
The new service will use Boeing 737 jets; at full capacity, HFC could fly up to 480 passengers a week to Cuba. Blythe says his promotional fare of $99 each way between Florida and Cuba is valid at least until Christmas.
Paul Major, managing director of Bahamas-air, said in a statement from Nassau that the deal “is important both for the airline and for promotion of tourism to the Bahamas, as it’ll allow travelers to combine two of the world’s premier destinations into a single vacation.”
Yet Bahamasair isn’t too eager to publicize its involvement in the venture, whose value was not disclosed; the airline’s name appears nowhere on HFC’s website, and Havana isn’t even included among the list of international destinations on Bahamasair’s own website.
Blythe is no stranger to controversy. In October 2000, his elaborate plans to bring U.S. luxury cruise-ship passengers from Nassau to Havana fell apart following bomb threats and State Department concerns that the venture would run afoul of U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba.