California company predicts feds will allow flights from area
By Jane Meinhardt | The Business Journal of Tampa Bay
Jul. 21 — TAMPA—Cuba Travel Services Inc. of California has expanded to Tampa, positioning the company to take advantage of travel business expected if the city is declared a “gateway” to Cuba.
Gateway cities to Cuba are allowed by the U.S. Department of Treasury to provide direct flights to the communist country. Currently, only Miami, Los Angeles and New York are gateway cities.
Cuba Travel Services was formed in 1999 in Los Angeles after the Clinton administration authorized expansion of direct flights from the three cities.
The company, which is licensed by the Treasury Department as a carrier service provider and a travel service provider, also has offices in Miami and Las Vegas.
“We are working with state legislators and members of Congress to push the (Bush) administration to allow direct flights from Tampa,” said Michael Zuccato, the company’s general manager. “It would make it a lot easier for licensed passengers—especially the Cuban-American contingency here—to fly directly to Cuba instead of having to go to Miami first.”
It is uncertain if Tampa will become a gateway city.
“That’s not something—to my knowledge—that’s under consideration right now,” said Taylor Griffin, a U.S. Treasury Department spokesman.
Cuba Travel Services is one of about eight Tampa Bay area businesses licensed to conduct tours of Cuba, fly there or both.
Another is Air MarBrisa.
Robert Curtis, chief executive officer of Strong Arm Air Cargo Inc. in Odessa, formed Air MarBrisa last year to provide charter service from the Bay area with a 19-passenger aircraft.
He has federal licenses to carry passengers to Cuba from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport with a stop at U.S. Customs in Miami. However, the service has temporarily been put on hold.
“With the current political climate, I decided it’s best not to risk not being able to bring any passengers back,” Curtis said.
He was referring to the detainment of three Cuban-Americans who went to Cuba three months ago and are accused of espionage.
The majority of travelers who use Cuba Travel Service are Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, Zuccato said.
The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York estimated that 160,000 Americans visited Cuba legally last year while another 60,000 went there illegally.
Cuban-Americans—many of them delivering money to relatives—make up about 75 percent of the legal travel, according to Tampa-based Cuba Trade & Investment News.
Competition is keen among businesses licensed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to provide travel arrangements, Zuccato said. He estimated 30 flights a week take passengers to Cuba from Miami alone.
Cuba Travel Services’ office in Tampa opened to cultivate ties within the city, arrange more convenient travel for people who have to go to Miami and eventually develop a transportation system for its Miami-bound travelers.
Alex Vincente, the Tampa office manager, said he is promoting the company’s services to teachers and religious groups in addition to Cuban-Americans in the area.
The company has designated a 55-seat American Eagle ATR for direct flights to Havana each Monday for travelers from Tampa before filling empty seats with other passengers, he said. The July 14 flight carried 24 passengers from Tampa, he said.
The company also has five flights a week to Cienfuegos because the Havana travel market has become “saturated,” Zuccato said.
The round trip fare to Cienfuegos is $349. Round trips to Havana cost $299 to $329.
“Unlike a lot of charter operators, we don’t compete with travel agencies,” he said. “Our business model is to work with licensed travel agencies to help them and cross-promote the agencies.”