Charter Flights to Cuba Surge

2numbers
30—Number of group travel requests to Marazul Charters in the second half of January 2014. 1,300—Number of group travel requests to Marazul Charters for the same period this year. Source: Marazul Charters Illustration by Chi Birmingham

It’s been a busy few weeks for the half-dozen or so companies licensed to charter flights between the United States and Cuba. In December, President Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the easing of travel and trade restrictions started in mid-January. “We have just been inundated,” says Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which has been around for 35 years and flies mostly between Miami and a few Cuban cities.

In the second half of January 2014, Guild says his company received 30 requests for group travel. During that period this year—the first two weeks under the eased rules—the company got 1,300 requests from groups of Americans seeking to visit the island. In fact, Guild says he is discouraging people from packing their bags until April or May. “Cuba is already filled, as far as their hotels go,” he says.

Air service agreements between the two countries date back to 1953. Until last month, the U.S. had limited air travel to Cuba to companies holding special licenses and operating non-regular flights. As Jimmy Carter and other presidents expanded Cuba travel categories beginning in the late 1970s, companies such as Marazul, Gulfstream, ABC, Xael, Wilson and Cuba Travel Services grew to dominate the market.

In 2003 and 2004, President George W. Bush set restrictions on family visits and cut back cultural licenses for Americans. “He hit us really hard,” says Tessie Aral of ABC Charters. “We had to lay off half our staff.” The industry bounced back in 2009 and 2011, when Obama began easing restrictions. Michael Zuccato of Cuba Travel Services estimates his business is up more than 100 percent since 2011.

Marazul isn’t the only company cashing in. Zuccato says he represented his company at a travel show, and a week later, “I’m just now getting my voice back.” His company is adding a weekly flight from New York City to Havana in March.

A Tampa International Airport spokeswoman says that she expects charter operators there to add additional flights to Cuba in the coming weeks, and that GoToCuba.org, a website the airport created to provide Cuba travel information, has seen 1,580 percent more traffic since before Obama’s announcement in December.

A plan to renegotiate the 62-year-old air service agreement between the two countries could clear the way for major commercial airlines to start flights. American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United have all expressed interest in flying to Cuba, and representatives from the Priceline Group and Orbitz tell Newsweek they’re eager to get Cuba on their booking websites. Kayak, a travel search engine under the Priceline umbrella, has already added Cuba hotel and flight data to its search results.

Still, the charters have loyal followings and have weathered tough storms—extremists bombed Marazul’s offices in 1988 and 1996. Lillian Manzor, a University of Miami associate professor and expert on U.S.-Cuba travel policies, says the smaller operations have “a long experience and tradition of working with Cuba” and “an experiential know-how that they’ve already had to deal with for 20-odd years that the [major] American companies don’t have.”