ABC Charter Service’s leased American Airlines Flight 9451 departed Miami International Airport Havana bound Friday afternoon. ABC sends 16 flights a week to the Cuban capital usually packed with Cuban American visiting friends and families and U.S. citizens who vouched that they were traveling to the island for approved activities such as people to people and cultural exchanges allowed under relaxed travel restrictions. The flights are routine, licensed by the U.S. Government and approved by the Cuban Government.
Meanwhile going nowhere are American scheduled airlines and American Cruise ship companies. Many major carriers and cruise lines have secured U.S. approval to begin service but a year and a month after President Obama announced the thaw in relations with Cuba the U.S. travel industries transportation plans appear stalled.
The Cuban government is advancing slowly if at all on final approvals. Announced sailing dates for cruise lines are looming. Carnival Corp’s Fathom is hoping to get the Cuban approval before its planned inaugural cruise in May. Fathom is the only cruise line that has secured a berth at the Port of Miami. Haimark Lines has a sold out cruise departing March 18, but no approval. Pearl Seas Cruises has also announced and is selling tickets for Spring trips to Cuba out of Miami.
Major airlines have had their Cuban flight plans in place for years. American Airlines flies to several Cuban airports on a daily basis as charters. Airline company representatives have been meeting with counterparts in Cuba, but Cuban approval is still not nailed down.
What is the hold up? Early on Jose Cabanas, who is now Cuba’s ambassador to the United States warned that things would go slow for cruise and airline concessions. “These companies have to go to our authorities, they have to introduce their ideas…some of them we already know but not all are equal.” “Bureaucratic log jam” is how one Miami travel agent described the stalled progress. That may well be as the Cuban Military, which owns and runs the country’s tourism sector, is being very cautious with all things American. According to Cuba Scholar and author Dr. Andy Gomez, “Even though we have granted approval for airlines and cruise lines, I believe the Cubans are trying to figure out how they can keep a large part of the revenue generated by tourism without having to give it to the U.S. airlines and cruise companies.”
Also complicating the issue is that of infrastructure. A recent article appearing in a Cuban website addresses the issue and blames the U.S. embargo for the dilemma. As noted in Caribbeannewsdigital.com, “…the Cuban tourism sector has faced the growth of international tourism as always with the burden of lack of material and financial resources with little direct foreign investment and deterioration of the hotel industry by lack of basic supplies and trade restriction imposed by the U.S. government. Bottom line Cuba does not have enough hotel rooms, restaurants, rental cars, berths at the Port of Havana, and buses to handle the growing onslaught of tourists. A Miami travel agent, who does not want to disclose her name due to on going meetings with Cuban travel officials, tells byteclay.com, “Havana is booked solid through May, the Cubans are just not ready.” Dr. Andy Gomez adds, “their infrastructure needs a complete overhaul. The Cubans want tourist traveling to Cuba more than just once and their system is at best very mediocre even in some sections of Varadero.
The cruise ship operators wait, the airline executives wait, and as the weeks go by the realities of doing business in Cuba comes into sharp focus. It is not easy to set up shop when a military dictatorship is running the show.