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Americans Arrive In Cuba On First Commercial Flights To The Island

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NPR's Carrie Kahn just did something that was considered impossible for decades. She boarded a commercial airliner in Miami, and one hour later she touched down in Cuba. Regular commercial flights from the U.S. to the island started just last week thanks to the easing of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. The flights have been increasing in number, and soon there are expected to be dozens a day from various cities. Carrie joins us now from Cienfuegos, Cuba. Hi Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How was the flight?

KAHN: It was a pretty regular flight. That's if you consider a band at the departing gate normal.

SHAPIRO: Really?

KAHN: There was quite fanfare at the departing gate. It was a little chaotic. There were speeches and everything. But it was an hour-long flight. And when we touched down in Cienfuegos, there was another reception there for us as we came. And everybody got a rose when they came off the plane.

I think the biggest difference, though, was that I got through immigration and my baggage I'd say in less than 10 minutes. And in all my trips to Cuba, I can tell you about the hours it's taken me (inaudible) immigration and the hours it takes to get your bag. And so that was all right.

SHAPIRO: And who else was on the plane with you, what kind of people?

KAHN: There were a lot of American Airline executives. This was their first flight to Cuba. I met some students from Stanford. There were two brothers that were making a documentary, lot of traveling. And there were Cuban Americans there.

SHAPIRO: Can any American get on a flight like this to Cuba?

KAHN: No, there still is an embargo. There still is a travel ban. You have to be one of these special 12 categories. For example, you could be a journalist. I have my journalist visa. You could do a people-to-people cultural trip, permitted businesses and Cuban-Americans that have dual citizenship and are traveling on a Cuban passport. And I'll tell you. For them, the biggest difference in this flight today is the cost - not so much in the ticket, which is about $100, $150 (unintelligible).

The big difference is in the luggage. That's where the charter companies would make their biggest money. They charge, charge the (inaudible) luggage. And Cuban-Americans coming here or Cubans visiting back home - they bring a lot of luggage. And we're not just talking bags. We're talking air conditioners, tires, clothes, food stuff.

And there's one woman that I talked to today. She was so happy. She was coming to see her family here in Cuba. And her two bags cost her about $75, which was a bargain compared to what it before with the charter flights.

SHAPIRO: Now, you're in this beach town Cienfuegos. How do people there feel about this sudden openness with their northern neighbors that they hadn't seen for decades.

KAHN: Overall people are very excited. They're really hoping that this brings tourist dollars to this very sleepy town here. They hope that this tourist boom is spread outside the capital to them, too.

And I talked to this one family that has opened a bed and breakfast, and they're just hoping they can capture some of that business, but you know, they don't have the Internet here. They don't have a way to advertise. They don't really have a way to get the word out there that they're here and open for business.

And then there are other people that have always been unhappy with the opening of the Obama administration has made to Cuba, people mostly in Miami who say that this is trading with the enemy. For example, the hotel that I'm staying with is a state-run hotel owned by the military, and they're very much opposed to that.

But people here overall I'd say are just anticipating and hoping that these flights are full, and they hope that they all come and spend their money here in these towns all along Cuba.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking with us from Cienfuegos, Cuba. She caught a one-hour flight from Miami there today. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.