Kristen Leigh Painter
Sun Country Airlines won government approval to fly nonstop from the Twin Cities to two cities in Cuba, but it faces several obstacles before offering the flights.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Friday that it would permit Sun Country to fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to Santa Clara, the capital of Villa Clara province in central Cuba, and Matanzas, another provincial capital on the country’s north coast not far from Havana.
The DOT will decide on routes between U.S. cities and Havana, Cuba’s capital and largest city, later this summer. Delta Air Lines, which operates the most flights at MSP, only applied for Havana routes but not from MSP.
Delta is seeking to go to Havana from Orlando, Miami, New York and its hometown, Atlanta. Sun Country requested a MSP-Havana route but it is not direct, stopping over in Fort Myers, Fla.
Zarir Erani, Sun Country’s chief executive, said the locally-based airline is pleased to get the direct routes to the other Cuban cities.
“We are evaluating our aircraft availability to determine a schedule plan for beginning the new services,” he said in a statement.
It’s unclear when the service will begin, but when Sun Country applied for the flights in March, the company estimated that, if approved, it could begin flying there by this winter or next spring.
President Obama in December 2014 restored diplomacy with Cuba after 50 years of economic sanctions against the communist nation. This February, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the government would allow scheduled commercial flights to Cuba later this year and airlines scrambled to submit proposals.
While MSP fliers won’t have nonstop access to Havana, the Sun Country flights land at two cities that are relatively close to it. Santa Clara is 174 miles from Havana. Matanzas is 65 miles from Havana and about 25 miles from Varadero, a resort community with plenty of beaches.
“Varadero is like the Cancun hotel zone of Cuba. It’s a tourist zone,” John Brawley, owner and president of Plymouth-based Premier Travel Service, who has traveled to Cuba twice.
Matanzas was historically a hotbed for political exiles opposed to Fidel Castro’s regime, he said. And during the years when U.S. citizens were forbidden from visiting, Varadero — which is about 180 miles from Miami — became a frequently-visited beach town by European, Canadian and South American tourists.
“It’s got a concentration of what used to be very wealthy homes. There’s golf courses there and other things,” Brawley said.
Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation applauded the DOT’s decision. Congress must still take action on several issues to fully unbridle travel to Cuba.
Despite the normalization of diplomatic relations, travel and trade embargos remain. U.S. citizens still must prove they have a purpose other than tourism in order to go to Cuba. “Sun Country can’t legally sell their traditional vacation packages because it doesn’t fall under the guidelines, technically,” Brawley noted.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Friday she believes Congress will remove such restrictions and the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba will quickly rise. Klobuchar introduced a Senate bill aimed at lifting the ban on exports, and Rep. Tom Emmers is carrying the bill in the House. The effort is supported by a number of Minnesota businesses and organizations with interests in Cuba.
“We’ve been working on this a long time. This is just great news for the state,” Klobuchar said. “We already have such a foot in the door with businesses, like Cargill.”
Klobuchar said Minnesota currently sends $20 million in food exports to Cuba under the humanitarian exemption to the trade embargo. That figure could easily double if the trade sanctions are lifted, she said.
Setting up business in Cuba will be challenging, Brawley said, as American companies will have to work within that country’s government-centric system. And for American tourists, service expectations may have to be adjusted in Cuba, at least for awhile.
“The Cubans have a different cultural look on things than we do,” he said. “They are a communist country that doesn’t care have the same ‘service-first’ perspective.”
Sun Country was one of seven U.S. airlines that applied for non-Havana destinations within Cuba. All but Eastern Airlines were approved. American Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways and Southwest Airlines won other routes. They will fly from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago and Philadelphia to several Cuban cities: Camagüey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo, Cienfuegos, Holguín, Manzanillo and Santiago de Cuba.
U.S. airlines have made 60 applications for the 20 available daily Havana routes.
Several U.S. airlines, including Sun Country, flew chartered flights to Cuba in recent years. Sun Country experimented with two or three daily shuttles from Miami to various Cuban airports, but ended those partnerships late last year as the charter model proved unprofitable.