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U.S. approves commercial flights to nine Cuban cities; Havana routes coming later

Commercial airlines will connect the United States and Cuba later this year, one of the strongest signs yet of warming relations between two countries that had remained largely separated for more than five decades.

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday it approved flights by six American commercial airlines to nine Cuban cities — Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo, Varadero, Santa Clara and Santiago.

Left off the list for now is Cuba's top destination, the capital city of Havana, in part because so many requests were filed for flights there.

"They'll show people there are other things to do in Cuba besides Havana," said Jason Bewley, chief financial officer of Silver Airways, whose airline is the only one approved to serve all nine cities outside Havana. "It is diverse in terms of the geography and culture of it."

The first flights will depart from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Philadelphia and Minneapolis/St. Paul by this fall, the Transportation Department said.

The approved carriers are Silver, American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Sun Country Airlines.

No airlines requested flights from Tampa to the cities outside Havana. But Tampa International Airport is still in the running for commercial flights to Havana when the Transportation Department announces them later this summer.

JetBlue, Southwest and Silver Airways each requested the Tampa to Havana routes.

In addition, Bewley told the Tampa Bay Times that whenever the Transportation Department expands the number of flights to cities outside Havana, his airline will consider adding the service in Tampa.

Prices and schedules for the new flights are still being worked out. Flying from South Florida, commercial airlines could enter the Cuba market with tickets running $150 to $250, Miami-based Havana Consulting Group said in a recent report. One charter company flying from Miami and Tampa, ABC Charters, said a round trip charter flight to Havana now costs $469.

Flight times from one destination, Fort Lauderdale, will be about 70 minutes to Santa Clara, 90 minutes to Camaguey, and — once they start up — 80 minutes to Havana.

Cuba experienced a record breaking year for tourism in 2015 with 3.5 million visitors, according to its Ministry of Tourism. This year is on pace to top that, in part because of the 94,000 U.S. visitors recorded through April — an increase of 93 percent over this time last year.

The numbers do not include Cuban-Americans visiting family back home.

Not counting the family visits, as many as 90 percent of U.S. citizens visiting Cuba are headed to Havana, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

"Familiarity is the driver," said Marguerite Fitzgerald, a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, said. "When people think of Cuba they think of Havana. There is no real knowledge of other parts of Cuba. The flights will change this."

Tampa International Airport does host charter flights twice a week to Santa Clara, once a week to Camagüey, and once a week to Holguín. Still, all of them but a single route to Santa Clara are seasonal.

Charters throughout Florida typically offer one or two days of flights per week to Cuban cities other than Havana, according to information provided by Suzanne Carlson of Carlson Maritime Travel.

Such infrequent schedules keep destinations from attracting more Americans, said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, which takes tour groups to the island nation.

"Not everyone wants to go to Cuba for a week," Popper said. "Sometimes they just want to go for a few days. More flights a week help."

All but one of the destinations outside Havana will have a number of commercial flights each week. The exception is Cayo Largo, a small resort island off Cuba's main shore, where a Silver Airways' 34-seat airplane will fly just once a week.

In addition to greater frequency, commercial airlines also can market flights to Cuba to a larger U.S. audience than charter companies can. What's more, the major carriers can sell tickets online and their flights from city to city connect. Charters offer neither service.

"I don't think we'll see an immediate shift as far as opening up Cuba," Popper said. "But this is a start."

An obstacle remains: U.S. law prohibits Americans from visiting Cuba for tourism only. Trips must fall under one of 12 categories such as education, research and athletic competition.

Another concern is that Cuba may not be ready for more Americans.

Its hotel industry is already so taxed the government says it needs to add as many as 110,000 rooms in the next 14 years.

Plus, many of the hotels outside of Havana need work and would not be considered up to American standards, Insight's Popper said.

But finding international financing for upgrading the hotel industry will be easier once commercial flights start landing, said Kavulich of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

"Cuba will show potential investors photos of American airliners providing scheduled service to the other cities," Kavulich said. "That's critical when Cuba is trying to develop secondary destinations."

The private sector could also benefit.

"Cubans will set up restaurants in their homes and have people stay in their homes," said Fitzgerald with Boston Consulting Group. "Anything that touches the tourist industry is where you are going to see initial work."

The Cuban and U.S. governments negotiated for 110 daily flights to Cuba, 20 of which are designated for Havana and 10 each to the other nine cities.

One indication of Havana's importance to U.S. carriers is that their requests for flight allotments to the Transportation Department are triple the number available. That's why Havana flights still are being worked out.

Allotment requests did not hit the maximum in any of the other nine cities.

Those who oppose the new era of normalized relations with Cuba argue that visiting the island nation supports an oppressive regime since most of the hotels are government run and are used to supplement the military's budget.

Insight's Popper said the new commercial flights align with several provisions of the initiative by President Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba. They will provide an economic lift to the island, bring citizens of the two nations together, and teach Americans more about life in a nation long blocked off from them.

"Each area of Cuba has something different to offer," Popper said. "Thinking Cuba can be summed up with just a trip to Havana is like thinking all of the U.S. is like New York City."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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