TAMPA — News that the United States plans to ease some travel restrictions and restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba — the biggest movement toward normalization with the Communist country in a half-century — impacts few places more than Tampa Bay.
This is home to one of the largest Cuban-American populations in the nation. And thanks to Port Tampa Bay, it is arguably best positioned to become a top trade conduit with Cuba, as well as a travel hub.
Before the embargo, Cuba was Tampa Bay's biggest trading partner. Arthur Savage, president of longtime family shipping business A.R. Savage, envisions it mushrooming into a major trade partner again if this new era of normalization leads toward ending a decades-long embargo.
No Florida port is better positioned to handle almost any cargo Cuba would need, he said. And for a country desperately trying to rebuild its infrastructure and jump-start its agriculture, Tampa is poised to supply most anything: tractors and other farm equipment, fertilizer, seeds, and sprinkler equipment. Everything from Robbins Lumber Co. power poles to concrete pipes from Cast-Crete Corp.
"When you talk about rebuilding a country, the possibilities are endless, and Tampa is in the catbird seat geographically . . . with a great port that can handle anything they need," Savage said. "I view this as the single biggest trading opportunity for Tampa for the rest of my working life."
Within the bay area, where about 94,000 people of Cuban heritage live, opinion about ending the trade embargo has been sharply divided. Many Cuban-Americans, particularly older ones with memories of homes and businesses lost under the Communist regime of Fidel Castro, remain opposed to widening trade.
But in recent years, sentiment has shifted. Politicians such as former Gov. Charlie Crist reversed themselves, endorsing closer Cuban ties. Groups from the Chamber of Commerce to the World Trade Center Tampa Bay have applauded a surge in travel to Cuba under the Obama administration. Flights between Tampa and Cuba were restored in 2011 after a 52-year hiatus.
More than 150,000 people have since used Tampa International Airport to get to Cuba, many of them local Cuban-Americans whose only other choice in the state used to be to fly through Miami International Airport. The flights generate about $1 million a year for the airport.
Joe Lopano, CEO of TIA, said "the dust hasn't even settled yet" to predict how many more passengers would embrace easier travel restrictions.
But he noted that the act of removing Cuba from the list of terrorist-sponsored states could quickly have an impact, given that Florida universities are currently prohibited from Cuba flights because of that designation.
Travel to Cuba, though still a small component overall, has contributed to a 50 percent rise in international air traffic since Lopano joined TIA in 2011. "The fact is, we're becoming more of an international city," Lopano said. "Success begets success."
Island Travel & Tours operator Bill Hauf called the announcement "excellent news" and said the charter company will resume flights from Tampa next year, in addition to the six per week ongoing from Miami.
He agreed with President Obama's point that a half-century of travel restrictions haven't worked. "I'm happy for the Americans and the Cubans who are going to experience tremendous benefits by this new policy," he said. "It's been long overdue."
For now, the trade embargo on Cuba will remain in place, though Obama called Wednesday for an "honest and serious debate about lifting" it.
Once that happens, Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said, Tampa is poised to become the "natural gateway to Cuba," given its historical ties and short transit times of 15 hours. It's the closest full-service U.S. port to Cuba, 307 nautical miles from the Port of Havana.
"Port Tampa Bay has been preparing for the possibility of open trade with Cuba for years," Anderson said. "When we receive word from the president and Congress that the embargo has been officially lifted, we will look forward to being a major gateway for people and cargo, to and from Cuba, for years to come."
Beyond Tampa's port, lifting the embargo would no doubt affect at least one industry with deep roots in Cuba: cigar rolling.
Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co., said he is confident in continued popularity of his company's products — made with tobacco from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic —- over Cuban imports.
On the other hand, Newman said he would welcome having access to Cuban tobacco so that he could make blends with Nicaraguan and Dominican-grown tobacco.
Newman said Cuban cigars don't have the consistent quality they once had; some cigars in a box might be great but others won't draw easily. He thinks a lot of the lure is that they are banned in this country. "It's been the forbidden fruit,'' he said, making people want it.
What else will they want?
Probably nice hotels, charter operator Hauf predicts.
He said loosening up Cuba travel restrictions will bring challenges, including the need to improve infrastructure.
The best Cuban hotels, he said, are booked from November through April and travelers must sometimes plan trips a year in advance because of a shortage of quality accommodations.
He encouraged hotel corporations to put pressure on Congress, so that they might play a role in development.
"It would make the greatest sense for American hotel companies to be building hotels for American travelers," he said.
Times staff writers Josh Solomon and Phil Morgan and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.