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JetBlue wants to take you to Cuba (+video)

JetBlue revealed ambitious plans for its service to Cuba Tuesday, on the heels of announcing that it will begin weekly flights from New York to Havana in July. The air carrier joins other American businesses that have staked a preemptive claim in the long-isolated island nation.

As Cuba slowly opens up to the United States a slew of American businesses have swooped in to stake their claims. The latest is JetBlue, which revealed ambitious plans Tuesday to become the biggest US-based carrier of flights into the long-isolated island nation. 

It’s got a good start – the low-cost carrier will begin weekly flights from New York to Havana in July, and it operates two routes out of Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in partnership with a Cuban charter operator. The Obama administration recently relaxed travel restrictions into the country, but for the moment, tourist visits from the US still aren’t allowed. If and when they are, JetBlue wants to be ready to expand beyond the weekly flights. 

“We will be very aggressive in trying to get as much service as we can to Cuba,” Scott Laurence, JetBlue’s senior vice president of airline planning, told BuzzFeed News Tuesday. “We went into this decision with an eye on the open market; we wanted to establish not only getting into the market but being the leader there.”

The open market in Cuba is still theoretical, of course. After decades of strict economic sanctions, the US took major steps to ease relations with the country late last year, opening up an embassy and allowing limited travel and imports of US goods. In February, a group of US senators introduced a bill that would further relax restrictions on Americans doing business there. But under current law, the embargo can only be lifted in full if Cuba holds fair elections and improves its human rights record.

Still, US businesses are making what inroads they can in the hopes of being in a position to capitalize on 60 years of delayed economic development. Netflix launched in Cuba earlier this year, despite the fact that just 5 percent of Cubans have Internet access strong enough to use the streaming subscription service. Venture capitalists are starting to raise funds for direct investment in Cuba, and in April Wharton Business School held a “Cuban Opportunity Summit,” bringing together industries that could benefit from a US-Cuba thaw.

Long-term, “there’s a lot to be done, precisely because they’re so backward,” says Gary Leff, author of ViewFromTheWing, a blog for the frequent flyer community, in a phone interview.

Nearby tourist destinations like the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands are already established, but in Cuba, hotel chains, rental car companies, and more travel-related industries would be able to start from scratch, if they felt the political climate would keep their investments safe.

“Cuba has miles and miles of great beaches and low prices relative to the rest of the Caribbean,” writes travel behavior analyst Nancy McGuckin via e-mail. “The infrastructure will catch up quick.”

The airline industry is no exception. Thirty percent of Americans are planning or would be interested in a Cuba vacation within the next two years if it became possible, according to a recent poll from YouGov and AirBnb. The percentage among Millennials and Latin Americans is even higher.  Even before it becomes a potential resort locale, “people will be going now to see what it once looked like” under Castro, Mr. Leff says – the 1950s cars, the crumbling buildings.

JetBlue is already well-positioned to take advantage. The carrier’s hubs are in New York and Miami, and expanding into Cuba would bolster a well-established presence in the Caribbean.

“We are the largest carrier to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, so we don’t want to be in a situation where when Cuba opened up, we were the ones that didn’t go to Cuba,” Mr. Laurence told Buzzfeed. “We don’t want to be the grocery store that doesn’t sell milk.”

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