This is what it means for Cuban tourism.
Hola, Havana! Though travelers are not yet able to take a U.S. commercial flight to Cuba, American Airlines begins its regular chartered service from Los Angeles to Cuba on Saturday, December 12—almost exactly one year after President Barack Obama announced normalized relations with the Caribbean island nation.
If that sounds a little complicated, it should. It turns out that air travel to Cuba even under the embargo was not nearly as tricky as it appeared—let us all pause to remember when Jay Z and Beyonce (legally) went in April 2013. In fact, chartered flights have been running from America to Cuba for decades. American Airlines in particular has run charter flights between Florida and Havana since 1991. These flights evaded the U.S. sanctions because separate, specially licensed charter companies handled the sale of tickets.
The new weekly flight from LAX to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport will also be chartered, managed by Cuba Travel Services. The U.S. and Cuba have yet to agree on direct commercial flight rules. (A meeting between the State Department and their Cuban counterparts in October did not yield results.) Additionally, the flight will only be open to the 12 sorts of travelers sanctioned by the U.S. government, including journalists, businesspeople, students, artists, and people carrying out religious work.
Still, the Los Angeles flight will be different. The city, unlike previous charter origins like Miami and Tampa, does not have a large Cuban population. Though it’s ranked fourth in the country, the metro area contains just under 50,000 Cubans—half the number in Tampa and just 4 percent of the Miami population. The airline is clearly betting that non-Cubans will want to travel to Havana, too.
American is one of the first airlines to make this bid for (gringo) tourists’ budding enthusiasm for Cuban destinations. There is a lot of it. Craig Snyder, president of the nonprofit educational group World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, told Bloomberg Businessweek that the Cuban government expects 10 million Americans annually after travel restrictions are completely lifted—ten times the number that traveled to Cuba this year, even after the relaxed relations.
The expected increase in American visitors is already affecting other sectors of the tourism industry. Airbnb was shocked by the number of properties it saw go online after opening the service up to Cuba in April. By June, the country had 2,000 listings—double the number from earlier in the year. “We were really surprised by the quick uptake, especially since we hadn’t done much promotion in Cuba,” Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb in Latin America, told the Miami Herald.
Back in LA, the city seems to realize what a big deal this new charted flight to Havana is, because Mayor Eric Garcetti himself will preside over a ceremony before the first plane takes off at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
American, meanwhile, is chomping at the bit to get commercial flight up and running. "We stand ready to offer scheduled service as soon as the United States and Cuba allow commercial flights,” Art Torno, a senior vice president at American Airlines, said in a statement.
The Angelenos are coming your way, Havana.