Yvette C. Hammett | The Tampa Tribune | January 8, 2015
TAMPA — Anyone conducting a Google search for information on flights to Cuba will find gotocuba.org at the top of the search results.
Tampa International Airport paid good money for that placement — $20,000. But with the Obama administration announcing last month plans to loosen travel restrictions and re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, the airport wants to be ready, said Chris Minner, vice president of marketing for the airport.
The day the news broke from Washington, D.C., Minner had eight digital billboards up around the region marketing the Cuba flights.
Already, the airport is raking in about $1 million annually from the Cuba flights, when you count parking fees and concession spending. So, growing passengers on those flights, scheduled five days a week during the winter season, make the Google placement a worthwhile investment, he said.
Since direct flights from Tampa International to Cuba began in 2011, 158,798 passengers have flown from here to Havana, Santa Clara or Holguin. There are currently two carriers — ABC Charters and Cuba Travel Service — flying from Tampa International.
Most of those passengers have come from right here in the Tampa Bay region. When travel restrictions do loosen, it will likely mean more travelers from around the nation coming through Tampa International Airport to fly to Cuba, Minner said.
“Although we don’t yet know exactly what the new regulations will be, we anticipate the direction will be toward making it easy for people to travel to Cuba,” Minner said. “With a new liberalized relationship, there is potential demand from all over the U.S. We think Tampa International Airport is a far better alternative than flights from Miami.
“We spent $27 million improving our international arrival experience, which is universally acclaimed,” he said. “We have nonstop flights on low-cost carriers. People can get here easily on Frontier, Southwest, Spirit or Jet Blue, none of which fly to Miami.” They can then get a direct flight to Cuba.”
It’s great to be optimistic about what is to come, said Suzanne Carlson, who owns a Tarpon Springs travel agency. But she’s not holding her breath, she said, because it may be a while before restrictions are loosened.
Carlson, president of Carlson Maritime Travel, a licensed travel service provider to Cuba, said she has been booking trips to the island for four years now. “I think it’s way too soon to know what the changes might bring,” she said. “Although President Obama has announced he’d like to loosen the rules and restrictions, everything moves very, very slowly.
“This is just my opinion, but I know that Cuba wants its name removed from the terrorist list,” Carlson said. “That might be a first step.”
So far, Carlson said, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which regulates who can come and go from the U.S. to Cuba, hasn’t changed any of its rules. For now, she said, every individual has to have specific permission and a license issued by the OFAC before traveling to Cuba.
Tampa International has included a ream of information on its gotocuba.org web site about the rules and regulations in place at this time for those wanting to travel to Cuba.