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Cuba Opens Itself to American Travelers, But Change Won't Come Overnight
The Washington Diplomat / October 2016

By Larry Luxner

SANTA CLARA, Cuba — On Aug. 31, JetBlue became the first airline ever to offer direct commercial jet service between the United States and Cuba, when its Flight 387 from Fort Lauderdale touched down shortly before 11 a.m. at Santa Clara’s Abel Santamaría International Airport.

The flight, marked with melodramatic speeches, water-cannon salutes, ribbon cuttings and parties at both ends, “symbolizes our historic long-term commitment” to providing low-cost service between the two former adversaries, JetBlue President and CEO Robin Hayes said in a statement. “For the first time in decades, families separated by only a short stretch of water can easily and affordably visit a loved one, attend an important occasion or visit a special place.”

Just in case any traveler should forget that fact, Gate F6 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — which JetBlue has dedicated exclusively for Cuba flights — now sports a huge wall map showing the airline’s existing and planned routes between Florida and the Cuban cities of Havana, Santa Clara, Camagüey and Holguín.

There’s also an infographic highlighting the fact that in 2015, Cuba received 3.5 million foreign visitors, about 161,000 of whom came from the United States — up 77 percent from 2014.

On top of that, arrivals through the first six months of 2016 nearly doubled compared to the first half of last year. Despite the jump in American tourism to Cuba and the diplomatic thaw between the Cold War-era rivals, misperceptions about the implications of this historic rapprochement abound.

Most notably, the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against the communist island, which only Congress can lift, remains firmly in place. Americans can legally travel to Cuba only if their trip falls under one of 12 categories of authorized travel, such as professional research, humanitarian missions, religious travel or diplomatic business — though this requirement is now a technicality based on the honor system.

Meanwhile, progress in Cuba has been uneven. On the one hand, Cubans have benefited from an economic opening that has introduced a modicum of capitalist enterprise to the island. Cell phone usage is on the rise, while propaganda-laden billboards are less noticeable. On the other hand, poverty remains entrenched and Internet access remains highly restricted, as does any form of political dissent. And while the Obama administration has significantly eased U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba, many Americans aren’t aware that they can now essentially hop on a plane and visit the island that’s 90 miles from Florida’s shores.

On Sept. 9, just over a week after that inaugural flight, I decided to board Flight 387 myself for a long weekend in Cuba; it had been 12 years since my last visit to the island. Back then, Fidel Castro — not his brother Raúl — was still running the show, the U.S. dollar was still widely used and public WiFi was unthinkable, so I was more than a little curious to see how life in communist Cuba had changed — and not changed.

Although I could no longer book any of the $99 introductory one-way airfares widely advertised online, my $436 round-trip ticket all the way from Baltimore, Md., with a one-hour connection in Florida was a relative bargain; only a few years ago, such a trip would have cost $900 on a charter airline, not to mention the hassle of obtaining a license through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

But virtually none of my fellow passengers were tourists in the true sense. Most of them appeared to be Cuban-Americans returning — some of them for the first time in decades — to the land of their birth to see family and friends.

Before boarding, each of us had to fill out applications for Cuban tourist visas ($50 each, payable by credit card) and complete a form explaining the purpose of travel; a JetBlue employee told me this information is sent to Cuba before the flight lands to avoid any problems on the ground.

At precisely 11:18 a.m., our Airbus lifted off, heading east over the Atlantic, banking southwest over the Florida Keys and turning east again before touching down in Santa Clara only 43 minutes later. The 100 or so passengers on board applauded loudly, a few of them overcome with emotion. Many took selfies as they clambered down the waiting staircase and boarded buses for the short trip to the arrivals terminal.

It’s not clear why Abel Santamaría Airport in Santa Clara — a sleepy provincial capital of 200,000 — was chosen to receive the first direct commercial U.S. flight in more than 54 years. Perhaps it’s thanks to the airport’s 9,900-foot asphalt runway, which ranks as the sixth longest in Cuba.

Or maybe it’s because of Santa Clara’s location in the center of Cuba, about 175 miles east of Havana. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: Contrary to what many people may think, this city is not crawling with American tourists — or tourists of any kind — and is not likely to be for some time.

“The Cuban government is very conscious that Havana’s hotels are already maxed out, and I think it would like to see more tourism dispersed to the provinces,” said Cuba travel expert Christopher Baker, author of the “Moon Cuba” guidebook. “That said, the majority of passengers on these provincial flights will undoubtedly be Cuban-Americans returning to visit family outside Havana.”

In fact, even though it’s dramatically easier for Americans to visit Cuba now than at any time since the U.S. trade embargo took effect in 1961, that embargo (or “blockade” as the Cuban government calls it) is still in effect — contrary to popular opinion — and will remain so unless Congress votes to abolish it.

For now, Santa Clara’s main tourist attraction is its sprawling Che Guevara Mausoleum, a shrine to Cuba’s iconic revolutionary (many in South Florida instead view him as a “cold-blooded murderer”). Here, visitors can see artifacts ranging from the porcelain enamel “Villa Chichita” street sign from the Argentine village where the future revolutionary grew up to the black field telephone Guevara used in the 1958 battle of Las Villas.

Not far away is Tren Blindado, the site of a famous 1958 train ambush by Fidel Castro’s rebels against the Batista regime they overthrew a year later. Many museums and historic buildings front Santa Clara’s downtown main square, Parque Vidal, and Jewish tourists will also be intrigued by a small Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of town.

But for now, it’s ethnic travel rather than foreign tourism that is generating revenues for Cuba-bound airlines — notwithstanding objections from foes of the Obama administration’s new Cuba policy such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“We’re thrilled with the service. It couldn’t have gone better,” Danielle Sandars, a JetBlue spokeswoman based in New York, told The Diplomat. “We’re really excited to launch service into Camagüey on Nov. 3 and Holguín on Nov. 10 from Fort Lauderdale, though we’re still waiting to hear from the Cuban government on the dates [for beginning service] to Havana.”

Sandars wouldn’t comment on passenger volume or profitability, but did explain why only 80 passengers were aboard my flight back to Fort Lauderdale on an aircraft with 150 seats. “On some of the flights, we’ve had weight restrictions, so we have to keep at a lower number of passengers. The ones going down have been pretty full.”

Since JetBlue paved the way, other rivals have jumped into the U.S.-Cuba market, including American Airlines, Spirit and Silver Airways.

Silver, which began flying to Santa Clara the day after JetBlue with introductory fares as low as $49 one-way from Fort Lauderdale, plans to begin service to nine Cuban cities this year.

Baker said up to 20 flights a day to Havana are approved and are simply awaiting the Cuban government’s go-ahead to begin. But first, Cuba wants to bring more hotel rooms online, since the capital city’s hotels are already operating at capacity.

“The number of flights is impressive — 110 a week, if and when all the approved flights are in service,” he told us in an email. “That seems like a huge number of potential travelers. However, I don’t think many of those planes will be full. The airlines are looking to get in the front door as an investment for the future. There will obviously be some uptick in business opportunities in Santa Clara and other destinations served by the flights, but it will be a relatively marginal economic impact for the short term.”

For now, horse-drawn carriages and 1950s-era Chevrolets, Fords, Buicks and Oldsmobiles are far more numerous on the streets of Santa Clara than they are in more modern Havana. Yet thanks to its relative isolation, prices are also much lower here.

In fact, many shops and restaurants list prices in both “moneda nacional” or Cuban pesos — which are worth 24 to the dollar — and in the much more valuable “pesos convertibles” or CUCs, which are worth slightly more than a dollar each. For example, at the Rincón del Sandwich restaurant just off Parque Vidal, you can enjoy a cheeseburger for 30 pesos ($1.25) or a hot dog for only 10 pesos (42 cents). Drinks are priced in convertible pesos: daiquiris or mojitos for 1.50 CUC, and a glass of sangria for 1 CUC.

Lodging is cheap too. Airbnb lists 8,000 “casas particulares,” or private homes with rooms to rent, accounting for 90 percent of all rooms in the country, according to a recent article in the New York Times. Yet Santa Clara is considerably cheaper than Havana. One week before my trip, I booked a perfectly acceptable room at Hostal La Caridad, a private home within walking distance of Parque Vidal. The cost: about $18 per night, or $54 for my three-night stay — exactly the same as Airbnb’s average rate of $54 a night for lodging in Havana.

Transportation is also quite inexpensive, as long as you don’t rent a car (which is not advisable anyway unless you speak Spanish and are prepared to share the road with horse-drawn carts, farm animals and other things not normally seen on the Beltway). The day before my departure, I traveled from Santa Clara to the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos — a one-hour trip — in a red 1952 Hillman for the equivalent of $10.

It’s even cheaper if you’re willing to share the trip with strangers; a young man named Borroto, who hangs out at Santa Clara’s “Piquera de Autos” across from the main bus station, charges only 50 pesos (about $2) to make that same trip, stuffing 12 passengers into his blue 1953 Chevy truck.

The morning of my flight back to Fort Lauderdale, I flagged down a beat-up 1978 Lada, whose driver took me to the picturesque town of Camajuaní and back for only $15. Arriving at the airport just in time for boarding, I found small kiosks selling Che Guevara T-shirts, revolutionary books, colorful postcards and WiFi access cards containing one hour of Internet access for 4 CUC, or $5.

There’s also a duty-free shop selling cigars, perfumes and liquor, including bottles of Havana Club rum and J&B scotch whisky. Cigars range from the cheaper Romeo y Julieta to the top-shelf Cohiba, considered among the world’s finest cigars. I settled on a box of 10 premium Montecristo No. 4 cigars for 55 CUC.

The good news is, under newly revised U.S. travel restrictions, Americans returning from Cuba may now bring up to $400 worth of goods acquired on the island for personal use, including a maximum of $100 in combined alcohol and tobacco products. That’s a far cry from the days when OFAC actually fined citizens up to $50,000 or even threatened them with jail time for having visited Cuba in violation of the law.

But until the travel ban, and the embargo itself, is actually abolished, don’t expect retail sales at Cuban airports — or anywhere else — to take off.

“Any American can legally just hop on a plane to Cuba and follow their own itinerary under the people-to-people category, and all they have to do is sign an affidavit, provided by the airline, that they are doing so. The majority of Americans simply aren’t aware of this,” said Baker. “It will be a gradual process of generating such awareness, but I don’t think we’ll see wholesale change until the travel restrictions are lifted entirely.”

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