By Steve Huettel and Justin George
From the St. Petersburg Times
Travelers will be able to fly directly from Tampa International Airport to Cuba for the first time in nearly 50 years under the airport’s federal designation Monday as a gateway to the island.
A handful of charter flights could start this summer, perhaps one or two a week, said Joe Lopano, the airport’s chief executive. Flights will still be restricted to passengers with close relatives in Cuba, people traveling for medical and agricultural business or taking part in cultural, educational or religious activities.
More than 80,000 Cuban-Americans live in the Tampa Bay area, the third largest population in the United States outside of South Florida and metro New York. They’ve had to drive to Miami, which along with New York and Los Angeles were the only federally approved gateways for Cuba flights until Monday.
“Cuban-Americans in our community and businesses conducting legal trade with Cuba can now save time and money by flying nonstop from Tampa,” said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Alfredo Rosello of South Tampa, a retired letter carrier with an uncle, aunt and ”bunches of cousins” in Cuba, says the trip to Miami adds about $200 to his travel expenses.
“There’s the wear and tear on your car, the gas, the food, the hotel room,” says Rosello, who made his 15th journey to Cuba since 1990 earlier this year. “You’ve got to go the day before to get the (early morning) plane.”
Tampa International was among eight airports nationally named as new gateways by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — and the only one in Florida. Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Key West had also applied.
“From an image standpoint, this tells the community that we’re an international city,” Lopano said. “And it’s important to get that word out.”
Not everyone was happy with the news. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Miami, criticized the expansion of flights to Cuba as an economic boost for the Castro regime. Meanwhile, free trade deals with allies like South Korea, Colombia and Panama are stalled, he said
“Increasing direct or charter aircraft flights with state sponsors of terrorism is totally irresponsible,” he said in a statement. “Instead of doing business with regimes that undermine America’s security … we should be bolstering our democratic allies.”
Rubio failed last month to block the expansion of gateway airports with an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration funding bill.
Miami ranks as the largest host of Cuba flights. Last year, nearly 320,000 travelers flew to Cuba and back through Miami International. The airport averaged more than 10 departing flights daily.