TAMPA — Charter flights from Tampa International Airport have flown hundreds of thousands of people to Cuba in just four years. But next year, thousands more could be headed to Cuba as the United States and Cuba iron out a deal to allow more than 100 regular commercial flights to and from the island and the U.S. mainland.
The Federal Aviation Administration will accept queries from airlines interested in offering commercial service to Havana and other destinations in Cuba. Havana Air announced recently that passengers could book flights to Cuba on its website starting in January. Silver Airways, a discount airline based in Fort Lauderdale, also announced its intent to offer flights to Cuba in 2016.
While no major carriers — like American or JetBlue — have said publicly that they'll try to offer flights to Cuba, it would make sense to do so from Tampa International Airport, said Ken Qualls, CEO of Flight Management Solutions in Boca Raton, an aviation consulting firm.
"The general attitude has changed a lot — there's a lot of excitement right now about going to Cuba," Qualls said. "But it will be a very competitive and varied process for the FAA to develop."
Since charter services began offering flights in 2011, more than 226,240 passengers have flown from Tampa to Cuba, said Chris Minner, vice president of marketing at Tampa International Airport. The airport has seen double-digit growth rates in the number of passengers using TIA to get to Cuba, Minner said. That includes a 16 percent spike in travelers as of October for 2015.
"In 2011, no one had a clear understanding what the basic demand would be," he said. "But several carriers have come in and we've gone from two flights a week to nine in our peak period. It's doing very well."
These flights don't include trips for tourism reasons. Tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited by U.S. law.
But ever since President Barack Obama's call to ease sanctions last December, interest in visiting Cuba's untouched, antiquated cities and tropical beaches has grown, said Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, which offers weekly flights to Cuba from Tampa.
In 2012, 41,500 passengers flew to Cuba from Tampa after just one year of service. That number jumped to 71,400 travelers in 2015, according to data from the Tampa airport.
"Our charter operation exists today because there's no direct flight into Cuban destinations," Aral said. "We basically operate like a commercial flight because we have people traveling to see family and for business, just like the bigger airlines."
ABC Charters offers flights on contracted JetBlue and American planes four times a week in Tampa to and from destinations like Havana and Santa Clara, and sometimes Holguin in high seasonal periods like the winter and the summer. Aral's Miami-based company also offers flights to Cuba from Miami.
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Aral knows that commercial flights will ultimately change her business, but it won't squash it.
"There will always be a spot for charters at any destination," she said. "We're offering more as a full-service tour operator, where we book hotels and provide transportation, too, so we've been managing delegation groups that come to Cuba."
It's unlikely that commercial flight to Cuba will begin until late next year. And even then, local tourism bureaus don't see it being a boon for Tampa Bay.
"It will be very one-directional — a lot of Americans will travel to Cuba, but we won't see a lot of Cubans coming to America, at least not in the immediate future," said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism marketing agency.
If Tampa became a stopover for Americans on their way to Cuba, there could be a market for those travelers who stay a night or two in Tampa, Corrada said. But not much else.
"Cubans don't have the spending power right now to come to Tampa and stay in a hotel and go to Busch Gardens. We'll just have to wait and see," he added.
David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater in Pinellas County, agreed.
Cuba doesn't have the infrastructure or hotels ready to accommodate a large influx of travelers who want to vacation there yet, either.
"I think it's too early to tell," Downing said.
Tampa would have to compete with larger international airports — like Atlanta and Miami — as possible destinations for Cuba travel, Qualls said. And with terror attacks in Europe this year, it might draw more people to travel to Cuba next year, if flights are available.
"Cuba has been a location that people have avoided for so long," Qualls said. "It's a close location and a pretty nice and fun place."
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.