The Next Vacation Hot Spot: Cuba?

IMAGE: So whos ready to fly to Cuba?

"Take this plane to Cuba!"

Does that phrase ring a bell? Those chilling words were heard again and again -- mostly in the late '60s and early '70s -- when hijacking planes to Cuba occurred with depressing regularity (and led to the installation of metal detectors at U.S. airports).

That was one way -- the criminal way -- to visit Havana. Nowadays, you can fly there by charter -- that is, if you have close relatives there; if you agree to visit only once every three years; and if you cap your spending at $50 a day. Yes, the Cold War against Cuba continues.

But wait. Congress is working on a thaw -- and has voted to ease restrictions for families. Some believe that'll eventually mean the rest of us will be able to fly into José Marti International as tourists -- maybe even later this year. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., described the four-decades-old policy of isolating the communist nation as "such a failed policy [that] it deserves a burial."

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So who's ready to fly to Cuba?

Don't look for many airlines to raise their hands just yet. U.S.-Cuba relations have been a political can of worms for so long that, even though The New York Times reports a "new generation of Cuban-American leaders has rejected hard-line positions," I think most airlines are happy to sit this one out while Congress does its thing.

Sure, Fidel has retired, yet his totalitarian regime lives on and memories are long. But times are changing, slowly but surely.

For example: When we contacted Spirit Airlines, a representative said the carrier "would be interested in evaluating Cuba as a destination" while adding that there are "no active plans to do so until the ban on travel is ended."

Spirit, Southwest and the Cigar Factor

Spirit would be in a good position to open up routes -- the Miramar, Fla.-based airline already flies all over the Caribbean -- and face it, Havana is only about 200 miles from Miami. Plus, there'd be all the fun of watching how Spirit's typical "racy" ad campaigns go over with the Cuban-American populace (they have not gone over well with their flight attendants).

Then there's Southwest Airlines: While we couldn't get a comment from it on Cuba, the airline's interest in expanding to nearby international destinations could make this an ideal fit.

And while the Southwest model of several flights a day wouldn't typically lend itself to the Caribbean -- where one flight a day is the norm -- Cuba could turn out to be a "milk run" just like Southwest's new eight-flights-a-day service between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago Midway, inaugurated this past weekend. Plus, flying to Havana would be perfect for the range of Southwest's fleet of 737s.

And, you never know -- if the travel ban is lifted, we might have a stampede of airlines on our hands. After all, there are more than 11 million people in Cuba -- and my guess is, a lot of them would be interested in traveling to the United States as well. Then there's my completely unofficial survey of friends and colleagues, revealing that they, too, would like to visit the island nation ("Heck, yeah!").

And never underestimate the cigar factor.

It seems every time I'm about to head for Europe, I start getting the envious calls: "Smoke a Cuban for me, will you?" Not being a smoker, this is pretty meaningless for me, but maybe soon my friends can get all the cigars they want, at the source.

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