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Aruba, June 5, 2015 - American tourists are coming. For airlines and ferry services, it will be the 1950s all over again
The U.S. travel industry has spent more than a half-century gazing over a narrow stretch of sea at Cuba, the once and future vacation paradise located just a 45-minute jaunt from one of America's busiest airports.
A presidential declaration in December started the gradual normalization of relations—just last week, in a sign of progress, the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism—and touched off a rush in the tourism trade. Airbnb accommodations in Cuba, called casas particulares, have doubled to 2,000 since early April, when the lodging company announced its entry into the communist country. As diplomatic negotiations proceed, airlines, cruise lines, and ferry operators are salivating just offstage over the potential size of the U.S.-Cuba travel market.
“If something changed tomorrow, we have everything we need to fly,” says Scott Laurence, senior vice president of network planning at JetBlue Airways, which has been flying charters to Cuba from two Florida cities since 2011 and will start offering Cuban charter flights from New York on July 3. The U.S. Treasury currently authorizes 12 categories of travel to Cuba, including family visits, religious and athletic trips, professional research, journalism, and humanitarian projects.
For almost everyone else in the U.S. unwilling to deal with the illegality of circumventing the 1961 trade embargo, the Caribbean island has remained just out of reach—and therefore a blank canvas for those marketing tropical beaches, robust cigars, old-fashioned cars, and daiquiris served at Ernest Hemingway's old haunts. Even Cuba's economic system, unfamiliar to denizens of the world’s largest economy, could become part of the vacation pitch.
But first the gringos have to get there. The Cuban government predicts 10 million Americans will visit each year after travel opens in full, according to Craig Snyder, president of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonprofit educational group that hosted a public event with two Cuban diplomats last month.