Travel companies set their sights on Cuba

From cruise lines to ferries to airlines, businesses are getting in line to shepherd masses of Americans to the long-forbidden island of Cuba.

Many hope to benefit quickly under new U.S. rules that allow “purposeful” trips such as humanitarian or educational missions without a license. Others are preparing for what they see as the inevitable day when the U.S. allows open travel.

The latest to act was Carnival Corp., which announced this month that it will begin cruises to the island next May for cultural exchanges. But so many more businesses are excited that South Florida attorney Pedro Freyre calls it “a tsunami of interest.”

His team at Cuba Practice Group at law firm Akerman LLP has visited the island at least 10 times this year, mainly to accompany clients looking to develop travel-related business. He plans four more trips this summer alone — more than his three-member team made all of last year.

“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing since Dec. 17” when President Barack Obama announced a more open policy toward Cuba and plans to renew diplomatic ties, Freyre said. “We’re swamped.”

Cuba is banking on tourism as an economic engine, especially if financially troubled Venezuela reduces support to the island.

Cuba already ranks as the second-largest tourist destination in the Caribbean and could become tops — with open American travel.

Americans accounted for roughly one in six of Cuba’s 3 million visitors last year, mainly Cuban-Americans visiting family. With unrestricted U.S. travel, about 1.5 million more Americans might visit yearly, Cuban officials estimate.

Already under new rules this year, visits by Americans without family in Cuba rose 36 percent to 51,458 through May 9, compared with the same time last year, the Associated Press reported.

Carnival Corp. is angling to be the first to operate cruise service from the U.S. to Cuba in half a century, since Washington imposed its embargo on the communist-led nation.

Though it awaits Cuban approval, Carnival plans weeklong trips from Miami every other week starting in May on a 710-passenger ship through its new brand called fathom, which specializes in “social-impact travel” such as volunteering and cultural exchange.

By Doreen Hemlock Sun Sentinel, The Detroit News

August 3, 2015

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