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An atmosphere of expectation on the opening between US and Cuba

An atmosphere of expectation on the opening between US and Cuba
Many hope to benefit quickly under new U.S. rules allowing "purposeful" trips such as humanitarian or educational missions without a license. Others are preparing for what appears to be the inevitable day when the United States permits open travel.

The latest to act was Carnival Corp., which announced that it would begin cruises to the island in May for cultural exchanges.

But so many more businesses are interested that South Florida lawyer Pedro Freyre calls it "a tsunami." His team at Cuba Practice Group at law firm Akerman L.L.P. has visited the island at least 10 times this year, mainly accompanying clients looking to develop travel business.

Already under new rules this year, visits by Americans without family in Cuba rose 36 percent to 51,458 through May 9, compared with the same time last year, the Associated Press reported.

Carnival is angling to be the first to operate cruise service from the U.S. to Cuba in half a century, since Washington imposed its embargo on the communist-led nation. Though it awaits Cuban approval, Carnival plans weeklong trips from Miami every other week starting in spring on a 710-passenger ship through its new brand called "fathom," which specializes in "social-impact travel" such as volunteering and cultural exchange.

Airline Brokers Co. of Miami received U.S. approval to operate a ferry to Cuba next spring and recently expanded approval for cruises, said company president Vivian Mannerud, a veteran in Cuba travel. She's now talking to cruise operators to offer "people-to-people" cruises, similar to those planned by Carnival.

U.S. travel agents who book cruises have been fielding more calls this year on Cuba.

"We're seeing a lot of interest from people asking, 'How can I get there before it opens up?' " said Vicky Garcia, co-owner of Cruise Planners in Coral Springs. Many clients say they want an authentic Cuba experience before it becomes too Americanized or touristy, she said.

Cuba has been encouraging cruises, now taken mainly by Canadian, European, and Latin American visitors. The number of cruise passengers to the island rose from 6,770 in 2012 to 37,519 last year. And it jumped to 62,183 through May this year, according to government data cited by AP.

Still unclear is when Cuba might approve U.S. cruises or ferries and when the services might start. Among other things, the U.S. Coast Guard still must inspect Cuban ports, operators say.

Ferries: At least seven companies have received U.S. approval since April to operate the first ferry services from Florida to Cuba since the 1960s. The earliest a ferry service might start would be fall, pending Cuban approvals and other logistics.

Charter flights: Longtime operators of charter flights to Cuba are expanding to new cities to meet rising U.S. demand. Island Travel & Tour this month began twice-a-week flights from Orlando to Cuba. And Cuba Travel Services offers a weekly charter to New York starting this month using a JetBlue Airways plane. That's on top of charters already operated from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Tampa.

Tour operators: Apple Vacations this month started selling five- and seven-night "people-to-people" packages beginning in September to Cuba from Miami.

Airlines: Commercial airlines can't offer U.S.-Cuba service, but are watching developments. Low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines, based in Miramar, will consider flights to Cuba "when the travel restrictions are lifted, and air travel from the U.S. to Cuba can be done where we control our own prices and schedules - and we can offer the absolute lowest price," said spokesman Paul Berry.

Hotels: The U.S. embargo bans investment in Cuba, but U.S. hotel companies see rivals from overseas already operating there. Hotel giant Hilton Worldwide is interested in Cuba when conditions allow, as is Driftwood Hospitality Management of North Palm Beach.

"Given time, this is the next Cancun or Costa Rica," said Carlos Rodriguez, who spearheads Driftwood's hotel-development division.

The big question is when open U.S. travel will be permitted to the island of 11 million residents.

Bills are pending in Congress to lift the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, and they're gaining support.

"Open travel is probably the most likely to happen before anything else," Freyre, the lawyer said, "because it's the simplest ask in Congress.

"The travel ban is the one that most sticks in the craw of American people," who value their freedom of movement and now can travel to China, Vietnam, and elsewhere, he said. "I think the odds are relatively good that in the next couple of years, the travel ban would be lifted."


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