Businesses see potential profits in Tampa-to-Cuba flights
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 07 / 20 / 2011
By JOSÉ PATIÑO GIRONA | The Tampa Tribune.July 20, 2011.TAMPA. Armando Ramirez has made a successful career for the last 25 years selling charter flights from Miami to Cuba.
But he guarantees his Tampa business will get a boost if the Cuban government signs off on direct flights from Tampa to Havana.
"Many more people are going to fly," said Ramirez, who owns Tampa Envios, 2919 W. Columbus Drive.
"I always thought that the correct thing was to have flights from Tampa to Cuba," said the Spanish-speaking Ramirez. "We've always struggled for this to occur, so it could be a benefit for everyone."
Cuban-Americans in the Tampa Bay area would benefit because it would eliminate the time and money spent on traveling to Miami to board a charter flight to Havana. Travelers would no longer have to spend money on gas, a short plane flight to South Florida or a night at a Miami hotel.
Businesses in Tampa that cater to Cuban-Americans visiting the island-nation also stand to gain because directs flights from TIA would entice more travelers, owners of the specialty travel agencies say.
Ramirez estimates more than 80 percent of his clients would forgo traveling to Cuba from Miami and purchase tickets to travel directly from Tampa instead. In addition, he believes a number of people who refused to travel in the past would now embrace it because of the convenience.
The people in the Bay area who would still take flights to Cuba out of Miami are the ones traveling to cities other than Havana, such as Santiago, Holguin and Cienfuegos, Ramirez said. But those travelers would be the minority once direct flights from Tampa to Havana are established, he said.
There are an estimated 75,000 Cuban-Americans living in the Bay area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 survey.
Owners of local travel agencies that sell flights to Cuba say direct flights from TIA also will entice Cuban-Americans from cities such as Sarasota, Orlando, Ocala, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.
María Padron, who owns Taino of Tampa Pedro Envios, 3243 W. Columbus Drive, is confident that her business selling flights to Cuba would benefit.
It would be more convenient for the traveler and that convenience would translate to more business, she said.
"It would be something wonderful for everyone – for the community, for the agency," Padron said.
But agencies that sell flights won't be the only businesses to benefit. There are a number of stores throughout Tampa that cater to Cuba-bound travelers.
They sell inexpensive shirts, blouses, nightgowns, socks, shoes and clothing accessories that Cuban-Americans load up with to take to family and friends who are in need on the island. The company that charters the plane charges $1 for each pound of merchandise in excess of 44 pounds.
Aurelio Milian, owner of Aurelio Wholesale in Tampa, said he estimates that 60 percent of customers at his store are buying to take items to Cuba.
Direct flights would be a boon, he said. There are many people who live in this area who travel, but there are many who won't because they don't want to deal with the hassle of traveling to Miami or simply don't have the means to get there, he said.
"There will be a complete change for my business and for others as well," said Milian, who opened his store at 3260 W. Hillsborough Ave. four years ago.
Brenda Geoghagan, a spokeswoman for TIA, said new international flights serve as an economic catalyst for the community and the Cuba flights would be no exception.
"There is a potential for many groups," she said.
The Tampa airport currently is waiting for the Cuban government to issue landing rights. It might be in the summer or early fall before TIA gets the OK to begin the flights, she said.
Once it is issued, she anticipates two to three chartered flights from TIA to Havana a week.
"In the beginning, I see it very conservative just to see how the demand is," Geoghagan said.
Travel to Cuba is allowed only for Cuban-Americans who have relatives on the island and for those such as academics, journalists and artists who have approval from the U.S. government. Round-trip flights from Miami to Havana cost around $400 to $460.
Maria Sánchez travels annually to Cuba to visit her parents and siblings. But the trips can be arduous, she said.
Recently, she had to leave her Tampa home at 6 a.m. to have ample time to arrive at a scheduled check-in at Miami International Airport by noon.
When she returns from visiting her relatives, a family member drives Sánchez's car from Tampa to Miami to pick her up and an exhausted Sánchez drives back more than four hours to her home.
Sánchez, who works as a cashier at Aurelio Wholesale, said she and many Cuban-Americans who live in the Bay area yearn for direct flights from TIA.
"It would be less of a worry," said a Spanish-speaking Sánchez. "From here you can call a taxi and they take you from your front door to the airport."