Tuesday, March 8, 2011

From 3 to 11: Washington opens eight new US airports to Cuba travel

Washington opens eight new US airports to Cuba travel

March 8, 2011 - Boosting the number of airports allowed to host Cuba flights from three to 11, the Obama Administration is creating space for more growth of Cuba travel from the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) added Tampa, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, San Juan, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Atlanta to the list of airports authorized to host Cuba flights, according to Tampa airport officials. Miami, New York and Los Angeles have so far been the only U.S. airports licensed to host Cuba flights, with Miami capturing the bulk of Cuba travel from the United States.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce announced Monday that Tampa International Airport received permission to offer Cuba flights. 
"We thank the Obama Administration for recognizing the benefits of expanded air service to Tampa Bay area residents and businesses," said Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "Cuban-Americans in our community and businesses conducting legal trade with Cuba can now save time and money by flying nonstop from Tampa."
The new Cuba flights are welcome news particularly in recession-afflicted Tampa. The easing of Cuba travel restrictions since 2008 by the Obama Administration has already provided a small boost to Miami's local economy. With 110,000 Cuban-Americans living in Central Florida — 71 percent of them within an hour's drive of Tampa International Airport — Tampa officials have been lobbying in Washington for two-and-half years to be allowed to host Cuba flights.
At least three travel providers are vying to offer Cuba flights from Tampa, including Air MarBrisa, Island Travel Tours, Ltd., and ABC Charter. The airport expects to offer its first Cuba flights by summer or early fall, if Cuba grants landing rights to additional U.S. charter airlines.
"Tampa International Airport has received U.S. government approval, but there is more work to be done," said José Valiente, co-chair of a chamber committee to bring Cuba charter flights to Tampa. "Now we need to establish regular air service and help Cuban-Americans and businesses learn about the advantages of flying to Cuba through Tampa International Airport."
On Jan. 27, the Obama Administration published new regulations in the Federal Register that bring U.S. travel sanctions back to the relatively liberal "people-to-people" travel of the Clinton years. Opening additional airports — according to an Administration announcement in early January, all U.S. airports with "adequate customs and immigration capabilities" would be eligible to host Cuba flights — is the most substantial change from the status quo.
The new rules broadly expand religious and academic travel, allowing members of religious groups as well as academics and full-time students to travel to Cuba, without having to apply for a specific license in Washington. As a result, the largest U.S.-Cuba travel providers — C T Charters, Global Exchange, Holbrook Travel, Insight Cuba and Marazul Charters — are preparing to resume people-to-people travel programs and open new ones. Los Angeles-based AmericanTours International announced in February it launched a Cuba program, making it the so far largest U.S. travel company to wade into the politically charged territory.
The new regulations met widespread praise in the United States, including from the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, once one of the most ardent supporters of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. 
Political resistance so far has been unsuccessful. Led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the anti-Castro caucus in the U.S. Congress has tried in vain to block an expansion of U.S. travel to Cuba. In an open letter, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce asked the freshman senator from Miami to retract a bill that would have blocked the administration's measure.
However, Rubio announced continued resistance against an expansion of travel. The wording of the new regulations is so broad that the scope of travel will depend on the interpretation by bureaucrats at the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). 
"That is where I believe pro-embargo elements will concentrate their activity" to limit the impact of the new regulations, said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer with extensive Cuba experience. "In particular, they will press the Obama Administration to require unrealistic people-to-people components to successful license applications."
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