The resumption last week of direct flights between Tampa and Havana after 50 years marks a crowning moment for Tampa Bay's Cuban-American community. The move will make it easier and cheaper for Cuban-Americans in the area to visit family, and it clears the way to expand business and cultural ties between the island and the bay area, which share a rich history. Local leaders should capitalize on the flights before other communities erode the region's competitive edge.
For years, Cuban-Americans in the area were forced to travel to Miami to catch a direct flight to Cuba. The inconvenience added days and hundreds of dollars to the costs. But President Barack Obama relaxed the restrictions this year, expanding flights to 13 new gateways beyond Miami, Los Angeles and New York. For the bay area, whose 80,000 Cuban-American residents rank it third behind only South Florida and metro New York, the move could make the difference in reconnecting families while expanding cultural and business ties along the way.
The trade embargo still forbids tourist-only travel. The new rules relax travel restrictions only on relatives and those visiting the island for business, educational or humanitarian reasons. But the categories of permitted travel are broad enough for the Tampa Bay area to carve a niche in the Cuba trade. Leaders from the Tampa-area chambers of commerce have already met to explore how Tampa International Airport can become a major gateway. Given the Cuban immigrant experience in Tampa — reflected in the food, architecture and the once-thriving cigar industry — the city could parlay Ybor City and the old ethnic clubs into must-sees for academics and others going to and from the island.
Tampa deserved to win these new flights because of the area's Cuban-American population. But to sustain the business, and to keep the charters operating, local leaders need to expand the appeal of using Tampa's airport as a gateway. More airports are obtaining federal permission to fly directly to Cuba; Tampa needs an experience for travelers that draws them away from South Florida, Atlanta or New Orleans.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who worked doggedly for years to get the local flights, has asked the airport and area business leaders to come together on a plan for making Tampa a focal departure point. Steve Burton, the airport board chairman, has worked to build the Cuba ties, too. This effort should continue. Tampa worked too long for these flights not to a lay a foundation for keeping them.