TAMPA — For City Council member Harry Cohen, his first trip to Cuba was intense, perhaps most on the flight home from Havana.
Just 20 minutes after takeoff, Cohen looked out the window and saw Fort Myers and Interstate 75.
Normally, he thought, going somewhere so different requires a lot of travel. But not Cuba.
"It really hammered it home," he said.
Cohen and council colleagues Yvonne Yolie Capin and Mary Mulhern, recently joined a 38-person delegation for a five-day trip to Cuba. Along with business executives, the delegation included Tampa International Airport chief executive officer Joe Lopano and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce decided 18 months ago to organize the trip as a first step toward establishing Tampa as a gateway to Cuba and to help rebuild ties for the estimated 90,000 Cuban-Americans in the region, according to chamber president Bob Rohrlack. The "people-to-people" license for the trip was issued for the goal of enhancing cross-cultural relations.
During the May 29-to-June 2 trip, the Tampa delegation visited historic and cultural locations such as Old Havana, the Cuban Institute of Music, the Santo Angel neighborhood, the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, a tobacco-processing center, a tile artist, Havana's main cemetery, the Museum of the Revolution and Ernest Hemingway's house.
After returning, officials said they were struck by the island's contrasts.
The countryside is gorgeous, but empty of farms. In Havana, the architecture is stunning, and so is the neglect. Walking around the city, Cohen said, was like seeing Beirut, Lebanon, and Lisbon, Portugal, at the same time.
"If those buildings were ever restored, I think Havana would take its place as one of the great cities of the Western Hemisphere," he said.
"We all came away with, we want to come back," Capin said. "You could see this diamond in the rough that is there, regardless of the government that is in Cuba. It was an amazing experience."
The Tampa group also heard from some lecturers who, Capin said, admitted to "some very major mistakes," including the decision to stop growing crops for sugar, which the island now imports.
The City Council doesn't do foreign policy, but "all of us saw so much potential in the future, should there be a change in U.S. policy one day — particularly potential for Tampa," Cohen said.
"I'd like to see us do more cultural exchange," Capin said. "I think that we're so close and we have such a history with this country, that it would be a natural for us to at least do that."
That shared history goes back to 1539, when Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba and landed in the Tampa Bay area. But it includes Cuban fishermen who anchored here in the 17th century, the cigar industry's connection to Cuba and José Martí's political organizing in Tampa.
"A lot of people that we met down there recognize the name Tampa because we have such a long history of relationships," Lopano said.
Officials also saw potential for Tampa International Airport to become a bigger gateway to Cuba. The airport began nonstop flights to Cuba nearly two years ago and has seen almost 70,000 passengers since then. The travel service operators, ABC Charters and Island Travel and Tours, fly four times a week, with service to Havana and Holguin.
Lopano is confident of his airport's ability to provide a "much better" travel experience than other airports, such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and New York, with service to Cuba.
"Even in a restricted environment, I think we could probably get more business by letting people know who are legally allowed to go that instead of going down to Miami that you'd probably have a better time if you come through Tampa," he said. "And if it becomes a lot more liberalized, then I think we have great opportunities."