Nonstop charter flights to Cuba could take off as soon as December from Oakland International Airport, making it the first airport in the Bay Area to offer such travel.
But if you have an urge to visit Cuba, it won't be as easy as hopping a plane to Hawaii. Travel restrictions requiring that the trip be for academic, religious, humanitarian or newsgathering purposes will still apply. However, these restrictions were loosened earlier this year by the Obama administration as part of an ongoing effort to make Cuba travel easier.
The changes also made it possible for more U.S. airports to offer charter flights to Cuba. Before 2011, such flights could only leave from Los Angeles International, Miami International and JFK International in New York. Last year, travel restrictions were also relaxed to make it easier for Cuban-Americans to go to Cuba to visit family members.
"The Bay Area is home to many world class universities as well as community organizations that will benefit from this approval," Deborah Ale Flint, director of aviation for the Port of Oakland, said in a statement. "We are pleased to be the San Francisco Bay Area's designated airport to offer easy access to and from Cuba."
Oakland International has partnered with Long Beach-based Cuba Travel Services to begin selling charter flights to Havana in the late summer, with actual flights starting as soon as December. Currently, the company offers Cuba-bound charter flights from Los Angeles International and Miami International.
Pricing for a round-trip charter flight from Oakland has not yet been determined, but it will be comparable to what is costs to fly from Los Angeles: $689 to $859, depending on the time of year, said Michael Zuccato, general manager for Cuba Travel Services.
"It will probably be in that ballpark," he said. "We're very excited about the opportunity to offer (charter flights) from the Bay Area. A good portion of our passengers (that fly to Cuba from LAX) originate from the Bay Area."
The announcement about Cuba-bound charter flights getting federal approval to leave from Oakland International came from the office of Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.
"I have always believed that people-to-people diplomacy is the one of the most effective ways for strengthening ties between two nations. I am hopeful that today's announcement will lead to many more Bay Area residents taking advantage of the opportunity to directly engage with the Cuban people," she said in a statement.
But while more airports will be offering charter flights, regular tourist travel on commercial airlines from the United States to Cuba is still not allowed. It would take an act of Congress to lift a ban on American tourists traveling to Cuba that has existed since the early 1960s.
Cuba has always been a place that many American travelers have longed to visit, said Cheryl Pollino, manager of Danville Travel.
"You tell them they can't do it, they want to do it, because it's exciting and glamorous," she said. "It's the excitement of the taboo."
She believes the current ban on tourist travel to Cuba will eventually be lifted in response to changes going on in Cuba now and a push by the Obama administration to make it easier for Americans to travel to that country.
"It's going to happen. Give it two years, and (tourists) will be able to go," Pollino said. "A basic right of Americans is freedom to travel."
Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-952-2690.