The Tactical Traveler by Joe Brancatelli
Cuba: Decades of Delay, Then Boom and Bust
When the Reader's Digest group hired me in 1993 as the ludicrously named Travel Adviser of Travel Holiday magazine, one of my first thoughts was to track how the new Clinton Administration would handle relations with Cuba. Surely, I thought, more than 30 years of estrangement from the island just 90 miles off the coast of Florida was bound to end soon. We'd all be jetting back and forth to Havana and the beaches any day, I assumed.
Decades, and several presidential administrations later, the metaphoric doors to Cuba began to open. Late in 2014, President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with the Cuban government. U.S. carriers immediately clamored for route authority to the Cuban capital of Havana and nine other destinations. Starwood Hotels signed a deal for a presence in Cuba and Marriott also had the authority to do business there.
But the metaphoric roof began to cave in almost immediately. There were more flights to Cuba than people willing to fly there from the United States. Airlines began to slash service and Cuban travel was contracting even before the Trump Administration in 2017 rolled back some of the Obama Era changes. Where we go from here is anybody's guess.
Here's how we've covered the travel implications of the situation. The most recent item is at the top, of course. But read up from the bottom for the full context.
NOVEMBER 16, 2017: ALASKA SAYS 'ADIOS' AS TRUMP DROPS THE HAMMER
Alaska Airlines is the latest U.S. carrier to bail on flights to Cuba. The airline's flights to Havana from Los Angeles end on January 27, 2018, a little more than a year after the route launched. In its statement announcing the cancellation, the airline blamed weak load factors and the inevitable further decline in traffic after the Trump Administration last week outlined a near-complete crackdown on individual leisure visits to the island. The Trump Administration move to reverse Obama-era rules was not unexpected. Trump officials signaled the decision in June. It also made some of the island's most-developed infrastructure off-limits to U.S. visitors.
JUNE 15, 2017: TRUMP ADMINISTRATION PUMPS THE BRAKES ON CUBA TRAVELS
The Trump Administration plans to limit travel to Cuba by rolling back the 2014 Obama Administration initiatives. Since almost no one is going to Cuba anyway, it's difficult to see how further limits will matter much--at least for our side of the ledger. But as Carol Pucci suggests, the Cuban people will be hit hard by the Trump Administration's reactionary approach to travel.
APRIL 20, 2017: SPIRIT PULLS THE PLUG ON ITS CUBA FLIGHTS
Spirit Airlines is the latest carrier to bail on Cuba. It will end flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana, launched four months ago, on June 1.
MARCH 16, 2017: THE CUBA TRAVEL BOOM GOES BUST
The warning lights about Cuba travel started flashing last month (see below) when American Airlines cut frequencies and JetBlue Airways switched to smaller aircraft. This week, to switch metaphors, the floodgates began to close. Two smaller carriers, Silver Airways and Frontier Airlines, announced they were dumping all Cuba flights. How did it all go wrong for Cuba, which was the hot topic of 2015 or 2016? A columnist for the Miami Herald thinks Americans don't like Cuba's politics and that's why we're staying away. But a more likely answer is what I suggested more than a year ago: Cuba has limited appeal beyond Havana, the tourist infrastructure remains backward and there's plenty of warm-weather competition in the Caribbean. Adding to the generally dreary outlook? Barbara Peterson explains why Cuba's national carrier, Cubana, still cannot fly to the United States.
FEBRUARY 9, 2017: FLYING TO CUBA IS SO LAST YEAR
Flying to Cuba is so last year. After a frenetic rush to claim dozens of routes to Havana and other lesser known Cuba destinations, U.S. carriers are now pulling back. Starting this month, American Airlines has culled about a quarter of its original Cuba schedule and now JetBlue Airways is pulling back, too. Beginning in May, JetBlue is "downgauging," the industry jargon for changing aircraft. The Cuba routes currently served by Airbus A321s will be served with smaller A320s and existing A320 routes to Cuba will switch to E190 aircraft. That is a reduction of roughly 50 seats per flight or a cut of approximately 30 percent of JetBlue's overall Cuba capacity. A smaller regional carrier, Silver Airlines, is also cutting its Cuba service.
JULY 7, 2016: YOU GET A HAVANA ROUTE! YOU GET A HAVANA ROUTE!
The Transportation Department did today what you could have easily predicted it would do: Carve up route rights to Havana among virtually all of the carriers capable of flying to the once-forbidden island. Alphabetically, Alaska Airlines was approved for daily Los Angeles flights. American Airlines gets four daily flights from its Miami hub and a daily flight from its Charlotte hub. Delta Air Lines also got a daily Miami route as well as flights from its Atlanta and New York/JFK hubs. JetBlue Airways also got a daily JFK run as well as flights from its Fort Lauderdale hub and from Orlando. Southwest Airlines also gets to fly from Fort Lauderdale as well as Tampa. United Airlines got a daily route from its Newark hub and a weekly flight from its Houston/Intercontinental hub. Even the low-fare/high-fee carriers, Frontier and Spirit airlines, got some routes. Although flights to other Cuban cities launch as early as September, don't expect the Havana runs to begin until late in the fall. When the flights get there, Starwood Hotels will already be entrenched. It has converted a Cuban military-run property into a 186-room Four Points hotel.
JUNE 16, 2016: NOBODY EXPECTED THE HAVANA ROUTES ....
The Transportation Department made the first route awards to Cuba last week, but no flights to Havana were included. American Airlines will fly from its Miami hub to four cities (Cienfuegos, Holguin, Camaguey and Varadero) starting on September 7. But the first commercial flights to Cuba in decades will launch on September 1 when commuter airline Silver Airways will fly from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara. It'll also add flights to other Cuban destinations in the fall. JetBlue Airways also won rights from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Camaguey and Holguin, but hasn't announced its schedule.
MARCH 17, 2016: HOW TO GET TO CUBA NOW? LIE ABOUT YOUR INTENTIONS
President Obama is headed to Cuba next week and it probably won't surprise you to learn that he's got travel and travel-related industry poohbahs in tow. Besides a contingent from AT&T, executives from Marriott and Starwood hotels will be there. The goal? Get mobile service running and get approval for Marriott and Starwood to open (or rebrand) hotels in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba. Marriott chief executive Arne Sorenson will also be there although he's officially traveling as vice chairman of the President's Export Council. Convenient, eh? Meanwhile, with U.S. carriers chomping at the proverbial bit to fly to Havana, the State, Commerce and Treasury departments this week made it much easier for U.S. citizens to travel. Although "tourism" remains officially against the rules, all an eager visitor need do is claim that a person-to-person trip is for "educational" purposes. As one expert on Cuba laws told the Los Angeles Times this week: "They've essentially deregulated travel. This is a standing invitation to travel to Cuba for U.S. tourists."
MARCH 3, 2016: EVERY AIRLINE WANTS TO FLY TO CUBA, SO LONG AS IT'S HAVANA
I warned you last month to slow down your thinking about flights to Cuba. This week we moved a small step forward as airlines were required to put in their bids for the 110 available flights to 10 destinations in Cuba. As expected, there was a rush of interest in flights to Havana and only a spotty desire to fly elsewhere on the island. Alaska Airlines wants to fly to the Cuban capital twice daily from Los Angeles. Delta wants daily flights from Atlanta, Orlando and New York/Kennedy as well as two daily flights from Miami. JetBlue Airways wants to operate flights from Boston, Newark, New York/JFK, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. Southwest seeks Havana flights from Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa. United Airlines made the smallest application, asking only for weekly flights from Chicago/O'Hare, Houston/Intercontinental and Washington/Dulles. It also wants daily flights from its Newark hub. There were also applications from Frontier Airlines, the commuter carrier Silver Airways and the revived Eastern Airlines. Only 20 daily flights to Havana will be approved by the Transportation Department and the winning routes aren't likely to occur until the summer.
JANUARY 28, 2016: STEP-BY-STEP, IT'S GETTING LESS DIFFICULT
Travel to Cuba continues to get less difficult. The U.S. Treasury Department this week liberalized many rules for business travel to--and doing business on--the island. Complete details are here.
DECEMBER 17, 2015: MAKING THE CUBAN CONNECTION
Let's be honest: Other than the fact that Cuba has been off-limits for U.S. travelers for more than 50 years, what's the appeal of going there? Some good music? The chimera of picking up a '57 Chevy cheap? Cuba's travel infrastructure is decrepit and it will be years before it meets even the minimum standards of some other Caribbean beach destinations. You can't even claim you expect to get there before the "tourist rush" because the rest of the world never stopped going to Cuba. Besides, Airbnb is already there. That's a sure sign that "unspoiled Cuba" has already been spoiled. Still, the future is bright and I'm sure there'll be plenty of demand for commercial flights between the United States and Cuba when they finally arrive. And now we have a solid time frame: about six months. Thanks to an agreement announced yesterday, the path is clear for scheduled air service to resume. But don't book your flights yet. It'll take months to get the details worked out. It looks as if 110 daily flights between the United States and Cuba will be part of the first tranche of commercial service. But only 20 will be to and from Havana. Service to nine other Cuban destinations will each get ten flights. It's hard to see a lot of profitable demand to most of those places. And, oh, yeah, even with commercial airline service, only a very few U.S. travelers will legally be allowed to visit Cuba. Until and unless the embargo is lifted by Congress, it'll still be tough to visit Cuba. Unless, of course, we ignore the law and the embargo--and won't that be an interesting and inflammatory political row in the middle of the 2016 presidential election?
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