Duck Key Charters is making the first foray into the Florida Keys-Cuba connection that many business leaders have wanted for decades. With a proper charter service, and the Florida Keys Marathon International Airport (complete with Customs), it’s now a reality.

Melanie Slaga co-owns Duck Key Charters with her husband, Brian. She emphasizes the convenience of the Marathon airport. “I’ve been to Cuba in the traditional manner, leaving from Miami. It adds at least four hours to the trip. Leaving from Marathon, our guests arrive 20 minutes before the flight departs, spend less than 45 minutes in the air, and spend about 30 minutes in a private airport terminal at the Havana airport.”

Florida Keys tourism leaders envision the trips to Cuba as an add-on to a Keys vacation.

“I think we will attract a lot more visitors to the Middle Keys, who then travel to Cuba and come back to Marathon,” said Marathon Chamber of Commerce CEO Daniel Samess. He traveled to Cuba less than four months ago, exploring the logistics.

“We established relationships with vendors — tour guides, vacation rental agents and privately owned restaurants,” Samess said. “It was great exposure — learning what Cuba is today and where it’s going, as opposed to what it was yesterday.”

Duck Key Charters flies a Piper Aztec to Cuba. Flights can accommodate up to 5 passengers and cost about $2,500 total. Duck Key Charters partners with World Caribbean Travel which arranges the trips (two to three nights, plus accommodations and a personal tour guide) for $875 to $1,050 per person. More importantly, World Caribbean Travel arranges for the visas ($700 per group).

“The most common is the people-to-people category of visa,” said Yunior Rodriguez of World Caribbean Travel. “You get to know the Cuban people and see how they live, explore the cultural sense.”

Rodriguez said his guests often meet with children and see their after-school activities — such as sports or dance classes.

Samess said his group took over baseball equipment to donate to Cuban teams.

“It’s the national sport,” he said.

Because Duck Key Charters and World Tour Cuba serve small groups of tourists, the packages are thoughtful, somewhat customizable and definitely NOT one-size-fits-all.

“Our guests experience a door-to-door concierge type service,” said Slaga. “There’s also a strong local connection. Visitors can stay in a bed and breakfast, or what Cubans call a ‘casa particular’ and they have a private chaperone or tour leader.”

Slaga said the tour operators are working on hiring fishing guides to take anglers out, in addition to tours of tobacco farms, rum distilleries and, of course, Hemingway House. The other one.  

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Andrew Slaga, left, Brian Slaga, Yunior Rodriguez, Daniel Samess and William Layne toast Cuba at the Hotel Nacional. The group traveled over in October to establish tourism connections for visitors originating in the Middle Keys.

 

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