Direct travel between Tampa and Havana to take flight
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09/07/11 Janelle Irwin
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photo by Janelle Irwin

The first flight to Cuba from Tampa in 50 years will take place Thursday. Interested travelers gathered at the Cuban American Club in Ybor City Tuesday night to celebrate and get information from service providers about upcoming flights.

Cuban-Americans will have an easier time visiting family thanks to inaugural flights traveling between Tampa and Havana. U.S. Representative Kathy Castor said it’s been too long since there was an ease in travel between the two countries.

"It was 1962, the last year that Cuban-American families living here in the Tampa Bay area could fly out of their hometown airport. So we have a lot to celebrate tonight. During that interceding period the travel restrictions were on-again, off-again for Cuban-American families. Think about the bureaucracy and red tape involved just because a granddaughter wanted to visit her grandmother or a sister wanted to visit her brother on the island of Cuba. That's not fair, that's not right and it certainly isn't reflective of the Tampa community. Our historic ties are so vitally important to who we are."

Hillsborough Aviation Authority Chair Steven Burton saw first hand the emotional reactions when family members are reunited after decades of separation. He said the experience gave him more focus on the goal of opening lines of travel to Cuba from Tampa International Airport.

"At the airport you heard what sounded like a scream; the kind of scream where you're in such pain that a limb has been lost or greatly damaged, and I moved over to a circle of people, and this was within thirty minutes of being in Cuba, and it was a family who were reunited after 46 years. And the mother in Cuba was in such great deep pain in her cells and her DNA that she wailed and that changed me, I'll tell you that."

But Castor said reconnecting the two countries isn’t the only thing to be celebrating. She said Tampa has opportunity to create jobs and boost the local economy

"This is just a beginning because now what we've got to do is turn this into an economic opportunity for all throughout the Tampa Bay Area. Tampa now needs to be the gateway to Cuba for the entire United States of America. Those educational and cultural exchanges, those family members who are going to travel to Cuba need to come to Tampa to begin their trip."

And Tampa International’s CEO, Joseph Lopano agreed. He said the flights represent a growth for both the airport and the Tampa Bay area.

"The benefits to our airport will start out small but will nonetheless be very important. The most important signal here is that Tampa is on the move, Tampa is getting aggressive, Tampa is growing out of the recession and team Tampa is winning."

William Hauf is the president of one of the three companies that will provide service to and from Cuba. He said his company doesn’t offer flights until November, but he anticipates sold out flights by the time they begin.

"We're sure we will be, we will be booked solid from that point, particularly going into the December month when most Cuban-Americans want to go and visit their families. In Miami they put on over one hundred extra flights a month in December, so in Tampa we'll definitely have at least one flight a week if not more by the time December rolls around."

Jason Busto started a website with information on international relations with Cuba. His hope for the future of travel to Cuba will lead to the end of the long-standing trade embargo he says politicians are unnecessarily hesitant to lift.

"It's time to end the embargo and at least end the travel ban and what better way to do it than flights from Tampa reconnecting our community with the country of Cuba will only help both places, the people of both places."

Busto said trade is already in place between the United States and Cuba despite regulations. He added, state legislators from Illinois are traveling to Cuba to explore trade options and Florida needs to follow suit.

"We've got problems but the irony is even though the people in Tallahassee don't quite seem to get it and the people in D.C. don't seem to get it in terms of Congress and the state Legislature, we're looking at the reality that the majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida want the embargo ended. Cuba Standard did a poll, there are other reputable polling companies that have done polling showing not only that Florida, and specifics in south Florida Cuban-Americans but also wanting change by about 67 percent or more."

Despite the new travel freedom for some families, most Americans are still forbidden by their government from legal travel to Cuba.

Listen to WMNF's previous coverage of Cuba here

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