Nathan Hurst | The Detroit News
A new jet service taking off in December from Windsor Airport will bring the allure of a forbidden Cuban vacation within minutes of downtown Detroit.
Sunwing Airlines, a Canadian leisure carrier, will offer weekly flights to Varadero, Cuba, a popular beach resort about 50 miles east of the capital, Havana.
While U.S. citizens are mostly barred from spending money on travel to Cuba, officials with the airline and airport expect Americans to make up at least half the passengers on the route.
“On average, about 50 percent or more of passengers flying to Cuba from Canada are from the U.S.,” said Federica Nazzani, Windsor Airport’s manager. “Given our unique geographic position near Metro Detroit, we’re expecting at least that.”
Because of decades-old government restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, there are no flights from the U.S. to the Communist Caribbean island nation south of Key West, Fla.—except to the Guantanamo Bay military base. Americans who do make the trip must get there through a third country, such as Canada or Mexico.
An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Americans travel illegally to Cuba each year, on trips that were not approved by the U.S. government. Many do so without any trouble, but those who are caught face penalties of up to $250,000, though $3,000 to $10,000 is more the norm. The fines loom for up to five years after the trip.
Jail time is possible, but no U.S. traveler appears to have been incarcerated for making the journey.
Still, most are reluctant to talk publicly about their trips.
The Supreme Court struck down outright bans on American travel to Cuba, but it upheld Treasury Department restrictions on Americans spending money on travel to the country, and fines are based on how much the traveler spends.
The U.S. government does permit some Americans—more than 100,000 annually, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit organization in New York—to travel there on special licenses. Those on religious missions, journalistic assignments or academic study-abroad programs are among Americans who can obtain Treasury Department permits to travel to Cuba.
Cuban expatriates are also allowed to visit family every few years, and there’s an exception for American travelers who have their expenses paid by someone in another country.
Feds consider travel risky
The State Department, while not involved in the Treasury Department restrictions, warns vacationers against travel to Cuba because of safety concerns on the island, and particularly in Havana.
“It’s a risky trip,” said Josue Barrera, a State Department spokesman.
There are other hazards, as well. Should vacationers break the law or get sick while in Cuba, diplomatic help is limited. The United States hasn’t maintained an embassy in Havana for decades, so tourists in trouble have to work through the U.S. interests section of the Swiss embassy. American health insurance also is void in Cuba.
But for those willing to go, Cuba’s tourism ministry promises miles of white sand beaches, clean Caribbean waters and luxurious resorts with the distinctive flair of old-school opulence made popular in the 1940s and ‘50s by American travelers to Havana.
Canadian travel agencies say Americans are faithful buyers of Cuban vacation packages.
“We certainly get a lot of business from Americans,” said Martha Chapman, spokeswoman for Red Seal Tours of Toronto, a seller of sun destination packages and parent company of Sunwing. “Many of them book through agents on the Canadian side. There’s nothing stopping them here.”
The Sunwing flights from Windsor bring access to Cuba four hours closer to Detroit; the next closest direct flight leaves from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Sunwing also plans direct flights to Cuba from an airport in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, within minutes of Michigan’s border. The fast-growing airline also plans to add a flight to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
Nazzani, Windsor Airport’s manager, said the addition of Sunwing is part of the airport’s $600,000 expansion that will bring a new 10,000-square-foot pre-flight lounge.
She said the airport is also in discussions with other carriers, Canadian and American, about expanding service to the facility, which launches flights to Toronto via Air Canada Jazz, a regional feeder carrier. In particular, Nazzani said she hopes the new vacation destination routes will prompt American travelers to consider Windsor Airport as a travel option.
“We’re not as big as Detroit (Metropolitan Airport), but we’ve certainly got some unique options,” she said.