TRAVEL WLT-CUBA-FUTURE 5 MI

Cuban street performer Yohan Ulloa portrays "Tite, El Chichiricu" a famed Cuban tobacco roller.

Al Diaz, Miami Herald/TNS

The wait in the line to exchange money at the Havana airport can stretch on for hours, reservations are a must at popular private Cuban restaurants and tangerine and hot-pink-colored vintage cars ferrying visitors crowd the streets around the most frequented tourist destinations.

Tourism on the island is definitely booming. Cuba welcomed a record 4 million visitors last year, a 13 percent increase over the previous year that also was a record. And during the recent holidays the tourism stampede showed no signs of abating.

This year, with new cruise and airline service coming on stream, could be another record-breaker. Cuba is expecting an additional 100,000 visitors to the island in 2017, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

That is, unless President Donald Trump throws a monkey wrench into U.S. visits to this new hot market.

He has warned that unless the United States gets a better deal in its developing relationship with Cuba and the Cuban government makes some political concessions, he might scrap the whole normalization process initiated by the United States and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

That could jeopardize both cruise service from the United States and regularly scheduled flights by U.S. airlines, which resumed last year, as well as limit the number of Americans allowed to visit the island.

Under former President Barack Obama, Americans who fell into 12 approved categories, such as those making family visits or on educational or people-to-people trips, could travel to the island. Their travel was supposed to be purposeful, rather than a vacation toasting themselves on Cuban beaches.

Those more liberal rules meant that by mid-year 2016, visits by Cubans living abroad — most of them residing in the U.S. — and by other U.S. travelers to Cuba had climbed to the second and third spots among all international visitors to the island, trailing only visitors from Canada.

From January to June, non-family visits increased from 76,183 to 136,913, and that was before the first regularly scheduled flights from U.S. cities to Cuba in more than half a century began in August 2016.

Full-year breakouts aren’t yet available for 2016, but Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator in talks with the United States, said recently that the combined total of visits by Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers last year was 614,433, a 34 percent increase.

From Miami International Airport alone, 588,433 passengers departed for Cuba in 2016, compared to 444,667 the previous year. Included in the count are Cubans returning to the island after making U.S. visits. Passengers arriving and departing for Cuba through MIA reached nearly 1.2 million last year, compared to 907,263 in 2015.

Miami is the main hub for Cuba-bound travel from the United States, but other Florida cities, including Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando are also competing for Cuba-bound passengers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also has granted authority for travel between Cuba and other U.S. cities, including Los Angeles; Charlotte, N.C.; New York; Atlanta; Newark, N.J.; Chicago; Philadelphia; Minneapolis and Houston but not all the airlines awarded flights have begun to offer service.

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