HAVANA (Reuters) - 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 has protested.
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 incredible.”
“I would say we will reach 300,000 passengers just from the U.S. (this year),” he told Reuters.
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 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 Vegas.
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 1982.
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 flights.
“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 downs.
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 downturn.
“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