TAMPA — Despite a promise in June from President Donald Trump that he would impose stricter regulations on Cuba travel, the number of people shuttling by air and sea between Tampa and Havana has continued to rise.
Still, as they've waited for the regulations to become official, local travel agents were jittery about the future for this new market.
One shoe finally dropped Friday.
Citing concerns about mysterious health problems including brain injury and hearing loss by American diplomats in Havana, the State Department warned Americans against visiting the island and ordered home more than half the personnel at its newly re-established embassy in Havana.
"This is going to hurt business," said Frank Reno, president of Tampa's Cuba Executive Travel. "Any time Americans are warned not to go somewhere — whether downtown Miami or downtown Havana — they stay away due to fear and anxiety."
One theory is that the health problems arise from some type of covert attack — sonic weapons, perhaps.
The State Department says some of the attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels so American tourists might be exposed, though there's no sign that has happened yet.
"Let's hope the investigation will shed some light on the source of these attacks and bring justice for the compromised health of our diplomats," said Suzanne Carlson, founder Tarpon Springs' Carlson Maritime Travel.
But even it does, some agents say, it could dampen the pent-up interest in Cuba among Americans denied the chance to travel there for decades.
"Ultimately, the decision taken today by the State Department of the United States could only affect the American travelers ... who in the last few years were discovering an adorable and near Cuba in which they could feel safe," said Vicente Amor, Cuban born vice president of Tampa travel company ASC International USA.
Whoever is to blame, Amor added, it is clear to him that "this incident has been designed to affect the travel and the general progress of the bilateral relations between U.S. and Cuba."
Still, Tampa's large Cuban-American population gives him confidence the Cuba travel market could continue to grow. What's more, he said, locals will want to maintain a role in improving relations between the nations.
The travel industry is still waiting for another shoe to drop: No regulations have yet been issued to follow up on two restrictions Trump announced in June.
One is that Americans visiting Cuba for educational purposes — the most popular of 12 categories of Cuba travel designated under U.S. law — will not be allowed to travel on their own as they could before but only in certified tour groups.
Under the other restriction, U.S. citizens will no longer be allowed to stay in hotels owned by the Cuban military, which runs 60 to 70 percent of the nation's tourism industry.
The announcement itself was expected to have a chilling affect. Instead, the number of people travelling between Tampa and Havana has soared. The number in both July and August increased by 4,000 over the same periods the previous year — to 14,162 in July and 12,003 in August.
That's consistent with the average monthly totals earlier in 2017, pushing the year-to- date total to 89,800 — already surpassing the 80,200 recorded for all of 2016.
This is despite the added competition from two cruise lines.
"Our Cuba cruises from Tampa have been proving very popular and continue to sell well," said Carnival Cruise spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz.
What's more, American, Delta, Jet Blue, United and Southwest are now competing for three open commercial routes to Havana to be allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
They want the new business to fly from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boston and Houston. Southwest, which operates daily flights between Havana and Tampa, wants to increase its daily Fort Lauderdale-Havana routes from two to three.
Reno of Cuba Executive Travel, has continued to take at least one group to Cuba every few weeks, just as he did before Trump's announced the pending restrictions.
But even before the new travel warning, Reno said, "I do think concerns have increased about the politics and the ramifications."
Carlson Maritime Travel was already feeling it.
The Tarpon Springs company had arranged to send a group of golfers to Varadero in October to participate in the Cuba Gulf Grand Tournament. But the golfers cancelled soon after Trump announced his policies.
Americans who felt politically safe visiting Cuba when Obama was in office, said company president Carlson, now wonder "how going will make them look. People are hesitant."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.