US citizens can finally visit Cuba but many aren’t

Flagging interest.
Flagging interest.
Image: Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
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A less-forbidden Cuba isn’t selling.

Airlines salivated when the US and Cuba agreed to restore commercial flights to the island in late 2015 after more than five decades, and make it easier for many Americans to visit the island, part of the diplomatic thaw between the two nations. All major US carriers signed up to serve routes and in August 2016 the first scheduled commercial flights since 1961 took off with the fanfare of water cannon salutes.

But tourists don’t appear as eager to explore the long off-limits island as the airlines expected.

Already, airlines are cutting back on service. JetBlue this month said it would trim its service to Cuba by using smaller aircraft, just months after its first flights to Havana. American Airlines in November 2016 announced it was cutting its services from Miami to Holguín, Varadero, and Santa Clara from two daily flights to one. Florida-based airline Silver Airways also said it plans to reduce flights to the island.

But why would airlines be cutting flights at the height of winter holidays, when the weather on the island is delightfully warm and dry, and baseball season is in full swing?

Part of the problem is airlines became their own worst enemy. They flooded the market with flights they weren’t even sure travelers wanted, particularly to some secondary Cuban cities that lack the tourist infrastructure of competing destinations in the Caribbean—places to which airfares have declined this past year. Cuba’s state tourism agency is working on it—last year the agency said it plans to add 85,000 rooms for travelers by 2020 from 63,000 existing rooms—but right now, many cities still can’t really host hoards of tourists effectively.

No relaxing.
No relaxing.
Image: American Airlines

Cuba welcomed a record 4 million tourists last year, a trend that drove up prices across the island. Some hotel rooms cost $650 a night, Bloomberg recently reported. US travelers visiting for non-family reasons, almost doubled in the first six months of 2016 to 137,000, compared to 76,000 in the same months a year earlier. But travel to Cuba is also no stroll on the beach for most US citizens, especially with children in tow. US travelers need a license for one of 12 US government-approved criteria for travel to the island. Tourism is prohibited still, but US travelers can go for educational reasons.

Before passengers can complete their booking, airlines flash a pop-up warning informing passengers of government-accepted reasons to visit the island, a level of seriousness and planning that doesn’t necessarily jive with simple sun seeking.

Even if the requirements are met, travelers would still be visiting a destination where a limited number of aged hotels are no match for the five-star resorts of other Caribbean islands. And visitors need to bring wads of cash to pay for everything.