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New fall flight to Cuba shows growing strength of Tampa's Cuban travel market

TAMPA — Island Travel & Tours operator Bill Hauf said that in November his company will add another weekly flight to Cuba from Tampa International Airport.

That's significant because air travel to Cuba is at its strongest during the summer months, when school is out and Cuban-Americans can take their kids with them to visit relatives.

So adding Cuban flights in the offseason may be a better indicator of the growing demand for flights from Tampa to Cuba. Those visitors include many non-Cubans traveling to the island for educational trips and other purposes authorized by the U.S. government.

Island Travel & Tours will add a Friday flight starting Nov. 1. So during the offseason, the company will offer round trips to Cuba on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

"We still see the demand growing by American groups as well as Cuban-Americans here in the Tampa region," Hauf said. "We think it's time to add a third flight. We're in the middle of a strong season, but we expect to keep at it after the season is over."

Tampa International was allowed to resume commercial flights to Havana in 2011 for the first time since the trade embargo took effect half a century ago. More than 75,000 people have since used the airport to visit Cuba.

There are now five flights a week from Tampa to Cuba. Island Travel & Tours offers a flight to Havana on Wednesday and two on Sunday. ABC Charters Inc. of Miami offers Tampa-to-Holguin on Tuesdays and Tampa-to-Havana on Saturdays.

When the peak summer travel season ends next month, Island Travel & Tours will give up one Sunday flight. ABC Charters Inc. will also stop its Holguin route, according to its website.

But when Island Travel & Tours starts up its Friday route to Havana on Nov. 1, that will still give Tampa International four weekly flights to Cuba during the offseason. Hauf said the Friday flight will be popular with those who only want to spend the weekend in Cuba.

Tampa has a base of about 80,000 Cuban-Americans that provides a steady stream of customers to fill airplane seats to Cuba during the summer.

But the real potential to grow the market lies in non-Cubans. The U.S. government doesn't allow Americans to go to Cuba for tourism. But it does issue "people-to-people" licenses that allow Americans to travel to Cuba for educational, cultural, religious and humanitarian reasons.

Hauf said that's the market that's growing. He's also trying to get permission from the U.S. and Cuban governments to book flights to the Cuban cities of Santa Clara and Cienfuegos.

"All those people that can legally travel to Cuba are the impetus for growing the business," he said. So, in three years Hauf has added three different flights to Cuba. "We're adding one once every year," he said. "The business is growing. More Cuban-Americans are traveling and traveling more frequently, and more Americans are traveling, all of which is good news."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

New fall flight to Cuba shows growing strength of Tampa's Cuban travel market 07/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 10:32pm]
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