Cuba travel boom - after long wait
Thursday, May 7th 2009, 4:00 AM
Recession? What recession? At least when it comes to traveling to Cuba, business is great.
"We are going crazy," said Armando García, president of Marazul Charters, a travel agency with offices in Miami and Weehawken, N.J. "That's a good thing."
Just a couple of months ago, that wasn't the case. Marazul Charters employees had plenty of time for a midmorning break of dark and strong café cubano. Then, on March 10, the Senate eased travel restrictions, and President Obama followed suit by signing an executive order making it official: Cuban-Americans could travel to their homeland as often as they liked, stay for as long as they wanted and spend enough money to treat the family to a weekend in Varadero Beach.
Since then, café cubano breaks have all but disappeared at Marazul Charters in Miami, said García - there are just too many customers to be taken care of.
"These people had been waiting since 2004, the last year without draconian restrictions," he said.
Business is so good that Marazul Charters has raised its booking capacity from 369 seats in March to 480 seats in May, and all the way to 900 seats in June, a whopping 150% increase.
"I estimate that in May, 17 or 18,000 people will travel with Marazul," García said. "I'm talking only about us, but keep in mind that there are seven other agencies booking flights to Cuba."
In Weehawken, the story is different.
"We get some more Cuban-Americans now," said Bob Guild, Marazul Charters program director. "But most calls and e-mails come from colleges, schools, cultural groups and regular Americans who think all restrictions will be lifted soon and want to be among the first to go to Cuba."
Marazul Charters lost a big chunk of the New Jersey Cuban-American market because during these past years, many people found other ways to get to Cuba, Guild said.
"They went through third countries, even though it was illegal," Guild said.
In one of those historical coincidences, Cuban-Americans have recovered their right to fly to their home country almost 30 years after Carlos Muñiz Varela, 26, the true pioneer of travel to Cuba, was murdered in Puerto Rico.
The Cuban-born Muñiz Varela founded Viajes Varadero in Puerto Rico, where he had lived most of his life. It was the first Cuba travel agency to open under a deal negotiated in Havana between Cuban exiles and Fidel Castro in 1978, during the Carter administration.
In December 1978, Muñiz Varela booked the first U.S.-Cuba flight. Ninety Cuban-Americans landed in Havana's José Martí Airport to an emotional welcome from their expectant relatives.
Four months later, on April 28, 1979, Muñiz Varela was gunned down outside San Juan.
Those were dangerous days in which any peaceful contact with Cuba inflamed militant exiles and could provoke a violent reprisal. Twelve Cuba travel agencies in Miami were attacked during the late 1970s and 1980s, and here in New York, a Cuban airplane was bombed at JFK.
Fortunately, that senseless violence is a thing of the past.
"No one is afraid anymore; many who never traveled before want to do it now," García said. "Things are so different that even the Cuban American National Foundation [CANF] is in favor of traveling."
It is really a sign of the times that the powerful CANF, one of the most politically rigid exile groups, is now an advocate for travel to Cuba.
As García said, "It is not the same dynamics; it is not the same administration."
And that's a good thing.