by Noemi Galban, Raimundo Urrechaga
HAVANA, May 22 (Xinhua) -- Cuba expects to see the triple number of passengers currently traveling to the island through its international airports in the next 20 years, despite recent sanctions by the U.S. government, said local transport and air traffic officials on Wednesday.
Just as Washington has enacted new measures to drain foreign investment and travel to the Caribbean nation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is betting on the island as one of the pillars in the region.
"We are here to continue supporting the development of air transport in this country. The number of passengers is expected to triple in the next 20 years and the important thing is that Cuba can prepare well for this exponential growth," Peter Cerda, vice president of IATA for the Americas, told Xinhua.
Different international airlines and entities of the sector, along with IATA, came together on Wednesday in an event called "Cuba Aviation Day" which exposed the potential of air connectivity in the island.
According to the senior official, the global trend indicates that by 2035 the number of passengers worldwide will double, but in Cuba the figure should be greater because of its developing tourism industry.
"There will be more flights and airlines operating in Cuba, a greater number of visitors, business opportunities and air transport will play a fundamental role in connecting Havana and other cities with many destinations internationally," he added.
Cerda said that, in order to face this increase in visitors, the island must work to modernize its airport infrastructure, improve the efficiency of operations and align some of its practices in air terminals with international regulations.
Currently, 46 airlines operate at 13 airports in Cuba, transporting 9.6 million passengers in a total of 72,000 flights each year that include connections to 44 destinations in 26 countries, according to data from IATA on Wednesday.
At the opening ceremony, Cuba's transport minister Eduardo Rodriguez said the event becomes a favorable space to strengthen cooperation among airlines, promote safety and reinforce the economy of this sector so as to benefit the air operators.
"Our air transport policy distinguishes safety and protection at our airports, as well as in aircrafts in flight," said the minister.
Rodriguez emphasized that Cuba recognizes the benefits promoted by IATA, by simplifying travel and transportation processes, reducing costs for passengers, allowing airlines to operate safely, efficiently and economically under defined rules.
Earlier this month, Washington activated the Title III of the Helms-Burton Act that allows U.S. citizens to file lawsuits against losses in Cuba on nationalized or expropriated properties after 1959.
One of these claims will be made by the heirs of the alleged owner of Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, the main Cuban air terminal.
"We hope these barriers that are being imposed by the U.S. can reach a resolution because in the end they not only hurt Cuba but also all the passengers who try to come to the island and of course American companies," said Cerda.
In this context, he stated there are dialogue mechanisms in conflicts related to air connectivity through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
"Our role is that air transport continues to grow and be a strong mechanism for the economic development of countries, in addition to providing connectivity to different cultures and global traditions," he said.
Meanwhile, Ramon Jimenez, American Airlines representative in Cuba, said possible lawsuits against U.S. or international companies operating at Havana's airport are still "uncertain or without details" as it's a "developing process."
"Our focus is to bet on the Cuban market in the long term and continue our operations which continue to grow at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. Today we operate 12 daily flights to six cities in Cuba," Jimenez told Xinhua.
The executive said American Airlines is the airline with the most flights to the Caribbean nation from the United States. and in July they will add a sixth daily frequency to the Cuban capital, while in the coming weeks a second route to the central city of Santa Clara will begin operations.
Cuba expects to receive 5.1 million visitors this year, a figure which will represent a 7 percent increase from 2018.
The tourism industry is the second largest source of foreign currency income for the Caribbean country with over 3.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2018.