For Americans, a holiday in Havana is becoming less a dream and more a possibility.
On Friday, US carrier JetBlue Airways Corp. began direct charter flights between New York City and the Cuban capital, making it the first major American airline to fly the route to the long-isolated island nation in decades.
The new flights, which follow President Barack Obama’s decision in December to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba, makes JetBlue among a number of US companies to eye potential business opportunities in the communist-ruled island.
It also puts the airline in a good position to expand beyond weekly flights, if the recently relaxed travel restrictions – which allow Americans to go to Cuba for one of a dozen reasons, including visiting family or participating in academic or religious programs – are extended to tourists.
“JetBlue already has a proven track record of providing outstanding service to the Caribbean and has operated a series of successful charters to Cuba since 2011,” Scott Laurence, the carrier’s senior vice president for airline planning, said in a statement.
“As interest in Cuban markets grows,” he added, “JetBlue is positioning itself as a leading carrier to the island nation by operating more convenient flight options than ever.”
The airline also operates flights to Cuba out of Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in partnership with a Cuban charter operator.
The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, when it announced an economic embargo that halted trade and tourism between the two nations. “The blockade has outlasted the cold war, a nuclear crisis, and mass Cuban emigration,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Whitney Eulich wrote in December.
That same month, President Obama announced, after nearly two years of talks with Cuban President Raul Castro, the beginning of the end of the diplomatic freeze. With that, businesses began testing Cuba’s suddenly more open entrepreneurial waters, the Monitor’s Schuyler Velasco reported – and no surprise, as the new policy could double or triple American visits to Cuba, which as of 2013 amounted to only 3.2 percent of total visits to the island nation, according to the International Business Times.
Still, “We’re not looking at a large impact on Cuba,” Christopher Sabatini, who was then senior policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York, told the Times in December. “For the U.S. economy, these changes will be minimal, too.”
The main reason is the Cuban government’s strict control over about 95 percent of the country’s economy, a reality that presents notable challenges for Cuba’s markets as well as foreign investors.
“This change [in diplomatic policy] doesn’t address the multiple distortions and structural hurdles [in Cuba], in terms of economic growth,” Mr. Sabatini told the Times. “Cuba has not become an investment paradise.”
That hasn’t stopped business from trying to make inroads.
In February, on-demand media service provider Netflix launched in Cuba, giving residents there access to the company’s library of film and television content at $8 a month. Three months later, the US Treasury Department issued licenses for ferry services between Florida and Cuba, though passengers were restricted to those that fell within approved travel categories.
Venture capitalists have also begun raising funds for direct investment in Cuba, while Wharton Business school in April held a “Cuban Opportunity Summit” to bring together industries that could benefit from improved US-Cuba relations, Ms. Velasco reported.
JetBlue appears to be among the most eager in its efforts.
“We will be very aggressive in trying to get as much service as we can to Cuba,” JetBlue’s Mr. Laurence told Buzzfeed in May, after the airline announced plans for the New York-Havana route.
“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,” he added. “We don’t want to be the grocery store that doesn’t sell milk.”
[Editor's note: This story has been amended to reflect changes at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA).]