Beginning on June 1, Spirit will become the third airline to pull out of the Cuba market altogether, joining Frontier and Silver Airways. Two other airlines, American and JetBlue, have cut capacity on their Cuba flights, either by reducing frequency or downgrading to smaller planes.
It would be an understatement to say that travel to Cuba hasn’t met the airlines’ expectations.
Last year, following the signing of a newly liberalized aviation agreement between the U.S. and Cuba, the Department of Transportation put the available Cuba routes up for competitive bidding by U.S. carriers. And compete they did, fully expecting that Cuba would become the next “It” destination.
When the dust settled, U.S. carriers had signed up to operate more than 20 daily flights between the U.S. and Havana, and around the same number of flights to secondary Cuban airports, amounting to more than 1.1 million one-way seats per year. As the recent pullbacks show, that capacity has proven economically unsustainable.
How did the airlines get it so wrong?
In addition to overestimating travelers’ enthusiasm for visiting the island, the airlines failed to factor in some of the off-putting impediments to Cuba tourism. For now, the embargo on tourist visits to Cuba remains in place, forcing travelers to misrepresent their real reasons for coming to the country. Credit cards are still not widely accepted in the country, so visitors must carry large amounts of cash. And they’ll need it: Prices for travel-related services like hotel stays and restaurant meals have skyrocketed since U.S. scheduled flights resumed, in August 2016.
All of which creates a dilemma for travelers. On the one hand, ticket prices for Cuba flights are probably at or near their bottom. So getting there is a bargain. But prices on the ground will more than offset any savings on airfare.
There’s a time factor to consider as well. As the country’s pace of modernization picks up, fueled by tourism, the “old Cuba” — what made it an attractive destination in the first place — is fast disappearing.
Reader Reality Check
Is Cuba on your bucket list?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.
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