Regulations governing travel have been modified to allow for academic travel, as well as making it easier for religious and medical organizations. The changes also allow for a greater scope of journalistic activities. The new regulations allow for charter service from 13 U.S. airports, including Bush Intercontinental. The Houston Airport System's Marlene McClinton says Houston was pro-active in obtaining charter gateway status.
"Now, Houston's a very attractive market and a couple of firms are conducting due dilligence and working with potential customers. As you know, the market is limited to family of Cuban nationals and professionals in the fields of education, medical and religion. We have no estimates for market potential at this time. There's no historical data. That's probably something that will come from the U.S. Department of State or Customs and Border Protection. But we are working dilligently to facilitate whatever service may be requested."
Besides ex-pats and those with family members in Cuba, there could be demand from Texas agriculture and universities, as well as the medical industry. Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Jeff Moseley just returned from Cuba, traveling to Havana with a trade delegation.
"We are clearly positioned — the Houston region — to help Cuba. We hope the embargo comes down quickly, but even with the embargo there are abilities for Cubans to enjoy agricultural products and pharmaceutical supplies. So the mission was to a trade show, meeting Cuban officials. One of the officials that we met was actually the ministerof their imports/exports. We also had a chance to meet the head of the Havana Chamber of Commerce."
Moseley has high hopes for the future, when tourism opens up.
"The Cubans will really be a gracious host when the embargo comes down one day. There is non-stop air service that will be offered out of Houston — a charter flight, for those who do have official papers and paperwork. And I would recommend that, you know, every American look at the law and comply with the standards of the law. Right now, Cuba really isn't open to Americans for tourism. The only way to go in as a tourist is unlawfully."
Houston is getting into position, and Marlene McClinton says that includes the airport.
"And of the course the Houston Airport System seeks to develop air service to any market that makes sense for Houston travelers and those who use IAH as a preferred international gateway. So such a new route would create opportunities for business and tourism development for Houston, for Texas and for Cuba."
The air service development director for the Houston Airport System says the potential could be even bigger if the U.S. were to end the Cuban embargo. Genaro Pena says if that happens, Houston is in line to be a gateway to that part of the Caribbean.