The U.S. government’s warning that it isn’t safe to visit Cuba has not stopped people from flying there out of Tampa International Airport.
But now experts are wondering whether new, stricter regulations on Americans traveling to Cuba will reduce the number of passengers out of TIA, which is within a two-hour drive of an estimated 170,000 people of Cuban ancestry.
"What is important to remember is flights out of Florida — Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa — may be insulated primarily because individuals of Cuban descent will continue to visit family and friends in Cuba," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
There are 11 flights a week from Tampa to Cuba: a daily to Havana through Southwest Airlines and two weekly to both Havana and Santa Clara through charter company Havana Air.
In September, the U. S. State Department warned Americans not to travel to Cuba because U.S. government personnel in Havana said they had suffered hearing loss and brain injury from what has been described as mysterious sonic attacks that are still being investigated.
Despite the scare, 8,613 passengers flew between Cuba and Tampa International Airport in October. That was 64 percent more than in October 2016.
"The majority of this was local, from an area with a large Cuban population," said George Hamlin of Virginia-based Hamlin Transportation Consulting. "And they’re not going to be afraid to visit friends or family."
Overall, from January through October, 98,929 passengers flew between Tampa and Cuba. That’s up from 68,426 during the same period last year.
Michael Zuccato, whose California-based Cuba Travel Services provides visas for American, United, Alaska and Southwest airlines, estimates 85 percent of those visiting Cuba out of Tampa are local residents going to see family.
Of the remaining 15 percent, Zuccato said, the vast majority flew as individuals citing educational reasons rather than as part of a tour group. That practice is now banned by the new regulations.
Visiting Cuba for tourism reasons remains illegal, as it has been for decades. That means Americans going to the island must do so through an educational license that demands they spend the bulk of their time learning about the Cuban culture and not, for example, drinking mojitos on the beach.
Under the new regulations that became official Nov. 8, Americans must now be part of a group tour operated by a company certified by the U.S. government.
This is pricier and some may consider it more cumbersome than walking Havana as they please.
Alaska Airlines, for instance, will end its Los Angeles-Havana flights as of Jan. 22, saying 80 percent of its passengers have gone as individual travelers.
Still, it may be a while before Tampa knows what impact the restrictions will have on its Cuba travel market.
Anyone who booked a Cuba travel reservation before the new rules took effect on Nov. 8 are grandfathered in to the old system, which means they can travel as individuals.
And "those who would have gone as individuals might go in groups in the future," said Sandy Rederer, a commercial aviation consultant based in Sarasota. "We can’t know for sure yet."
In a best-case scenario with the right marketing approach, Tampa’s passenger totals could grow if travelers are added from markets such as Los Angeles and Minneapolis that are losing their flights, Rederer said.
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.