* Cuban American visits jump after restrictions lifted
* About 300,000 passengers expected in 2010
* Tighter U.S. security regulations not affecting business
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA, March 24 When a recent flight from
Miami touched down at Havana's Jose Marti Airport, a passenger
shouted "Viva Cuba!" in a show of the enthusiasm Cuban
Americans have for returning to their homeland.
Since President Barack Obama lifted restrictions last year
on their visits to Cuba aiming to increase people-to-people
contact, they are coming in such numbers that Cuba has had to
remodel the airport terminal for U.S. flights.
The immediate beneficiaries are the eight U.S.-based
charter services who operate the only flights allowed from the
United States and who say business is booming.
The only foreseeable fly in the ointment, they say, is the
U.S. government's inclusion of Cuba in countries where
U.S.-bound passengers must undergo extra screening, which Cuba
The charter companies say direct flights by Cuban Americans
to their homeland skyrocketed 70 percent in 2009 and are
expected to jump another 36 percent this year.
Cuban officials recently said about 250,000 Cuban exiles
visited the island from the United States in 2009 up from an
estimated 170,000 the year before, when many found a way around
the old restrictions by traveling through third countries.
Obama, who has said he wants better relations with Cuba,
lifted restrictions imposed under President George W. Bush that
limited Cuban Americans to one visit home every three years.
The result, said Armando Garcia, president of Miami-based
Marazul Charters, "has been a tremendous growth and 2010 looks
"I would say we will reach 300,000 passengers just from the
U.S. (this year)," he told Reuters.
MORE DEMAND, MORE FLIGHTS
Garcia and other operators said they were scheduling more
flights to meet demand. In March, a total of about 250 flights
were scheduled from Miami, New York and Los Angeles, up from
170 a month last year, the operators said.
The United States has imposed a trade embargo against Cuba
since 1962, which still prevents most Americans from visiting
the island 90 miles (145 km) from Florida.
But there are an estimated 1.5 million Cuban exiles in the
United States, a big enough market that charter operators are
interested in flying from more cities, including Fort
Lauderdale, Tampa, Key West and Jacksonville in Florida and Las
The Obama administration sent a chill through the Cuba
charter industry in January when it included Cuba among 14
countries where extra security, including a pat down, is
required for U.S.-bound passengers due to terrorism concerns.
Despite its protests, Cuba has been on the U.S. State
Department's list of terrorism-sponsoring countries since
The Cuban government reacted angrily, calling in the chief
U.S. diplomat in Havana to deliver a note of protest and saying
it would "categorically reject this new hostile action."
Charter operators say so far the measures have not been
enacted and they are hoping Cuba's airport security is
sufficient to keep the U.S. government from shutting down the
"Even before the rule came out Cuba had a very high level
of security for people leaving the country," said Tom L.
Cooper, owner of Gulfstream International Airlines.
"It appears to me to be fully compliant and we are not
foreseeing any problem whatsoever either going to Cuba or
coming from Cuba."
One U.S. transportation official in Washington told Reuters
all indications suggest Cuba does comply with security
standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization,
but declined to comment on the new security measures.
John Kavulich, senior adviser at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and
Economic Council in New York, thinks it unlikely Washington
will make an exception for Cuba unless it faces mounting
pressure from Cuban exiles annoyed with the requested pat
With Cuban Americans emerging as Cuba's second-largest
source of visitors after Canadians, Kavulich said he expects
Cuba will somehow accommodate the new regulations to keep the
flights, and the money they bring in, coming.
Cuban Americans are an important source of dollars for the
communist regime as it deals with the global economic
"They will comply in a meaningful way because the revenue
stream is pretty significant and important," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington;
Editing by Jeff Franks and Eric Beech)