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New era in U.S.-Cuba relations set to take off

Tourists ride in a vintage car at the 'Malecon' seafront in Havana, March 16, 2016.
Ueslei Marcelino | Reuters
Tourists ride in a vintage car at the 'Malecon' seafront in Havana, March 16, 2016.

MIAMI — The United States and Cuba will enter a new era Wednesday with a one-hour flight over the Florida Straits that will make it easier and cheaper for Americans to visit the long-isolated communist nation.

JetBlue is scheduled to fly the first regularly scheduled, commercial flight between the two countries in 50 years — a short jaunt between Fort Lauderdale and Santa Clara in central Cuba.

After decades of costly and cumbersome charter flights, a new aviation agreement between the Cold War foes means up to 110 commercial flights a day can go between cities throughout Cuba and the U.S.

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"This is truly transformational," said Alberto Coll, a Cuban-born lawyer and director of European and Latin American legal studies at the DePaul University College of Law.

The new flights are the latest change since President Obama's decision in December 2014 to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ever since, officials have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana, U.S. companies have signed new business deals in Cuba, and more Americans are traveling to the island.

About 161,000 Americans — not including Cuban Americans visiting relatives — made the journey in 2015, a 77% jump from the previous year, according to Reuters. Travel experts say that number will spike even higher now that flying to Cuba will be just a few clicks away.

"The fact that you can go online and book your flight with JetBlue or Delta, that legitimizes the whole process in the eyes of Americans who had been on the fence before," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, based in Washington, D.C.

The expected rush of American tourists remains a difficult sight to those who oppose the new relationship with communist Cuba. Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said even well-intentioned travelers to Cuba will enrich the struggling Castro regime and help it hold onto power even longer.

Suchlicki said many Americans will stay in government-run hotels, eat at government-run restaurants and fuel a tourist industry largely controlled by Cuba's military.

"Sure, if you're a waiter you're going to get some more tips," Suchlicki said. "But it's not transforming the Cuban economy. Cuba has had millions of tourists from other countries, and society hasn't changed. So why do we think that another couple thousand Americans are going to change Cuban society?"

Others say Cuba's growing class of private entrepreneurs will benefit the most. Privately run restaurants known as paladares have flourished. President Raúl Castro has allowed more Cubans to operate as private taxi drivers and tour guides. And travelers can now stay in more than 8,000 private homes through San Francisco-based Airbnb.

"All that money goes into the pockets of Cuban families that are going to use those resources to expand their small businesses and improve their lives," Coll said. "Over time, that is going to help transform Cuban society in a more open, more pluralistic direction."

Even with assistance from the private sector, many worry that Cuba is not ready to handle the onslaught of Americans heading its way.

Cuba currently has about 63,000 hotel rooms on the entire island, and those are frequently booked months before the winter tourist season or big events. The government has plans to more than double that number, but that process could take more than a decade.

The government also wants to expand Havana's José Martí International Airport. Cuba announced in August a partnership with two French companies to oversee the expansion, meaning it won't be completed for years.

"They are not ready," said John Thomas, an assistant professor of hospitality law at Florida International University in Miami. "It's a good thing for Cuba and a good thing for Americans that (the flights) have started, but I expect there's going to be some disappointment from visitors when they get there."

For now, at least getting there will be easier.

The U.S. maintains an economic embargo on Cuba, and travel there as a tourist remains prohibited. In recent years, that meant Americans had to first secure a visa and certify that they fit into one of 12 travel categories approved by the U.S. government, including educational, cultural, religious and business trips. They then had to find a flight, which were exclusively handled by charter companies and cost $400 to $600 round trip.

The Obama administration has made several regulatory changes to ease that process. Rather than having to verify one of the 12 approved categories, travelers can simply click a box online. JetBlue has the categories on a drop-down menu when booking a flight, and American Airlines has a pop-up box that users only need to read and click "Continue."

More airlines will be offering flights to Cuba, resulting in lower fares — some under $300 round trip. The Transportation Department granted Cuba routes to 10 U.S. airlines — Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver, Sun Country, Southwest, Spirit and United. Those airlines will soon handle up to 110 flights a day from 12 U.S. airports, from Los Angeles to New York to Chicago. About 20 of the flights will go directly into Havana, and the others will be spread among nine other Cuban cities.