What the advance booking data says
After pulling the data for bookings to Cuba, we compared historical differences in booking patterns. The primary hypothesis was that the availability of direct flights through commercial carriers would shift travelers away from transiting through Mexico or the Caribbean. Since a non-stop is more convenient, more travelers would opt for those.
But the data shows otherwise. While there was some shift away from bookings through Mexico and the Caribbean from some cities, the majority of travel to Cuba from American still funnels through at least one stop. This is likely due to two important factors: price and in-destination amenities.
Hypothesis #1: price
Another explanation of traveler tendency towards split-routings is price. Non-stops are generally more expensive. With most airlines operating on the hub-and-spoke model, there can be pricing advantages built into transit hubs.
In addition, there are regional airlines (such as AeroMexico) that offer competitive fares out of major Mexican airports. There is less competition for the new direct-to-Cuba routes, which offers airlines a buffer from head-to-head competition with other airlines flying the same route.
Hypothesis #2: amenities
Cuba is still going through efforts to modernize its tourism infrastructure. While travelers from countries outside of the U.S. have been visiting Cuba for decades, the amenities remain basic. Only recently have international hotel brands taken root in the country. In addition, the informal tourism economy is now a bit broader. State control still dominates, but more entrepreneurs are being brought into the fold to provide housing and food to visitors.
This means that certain travelers might not be willing to spend a whole week in Cuba. This would explain the continued routing through Mexico and the Caribbean. Certain categories of travelers want to enjoy more amenities during a trip and thus only split off part of a vacation to visit Cuba.
Bonus hypothesis: schedule
There are limitations to the number of commercial flights to Cuba from the United States. This leads to a constricted schedule that offers fewer options. If travelers are able to find a routing through Mexico or the Caribbean that is preferable, then they may sacrifice travel time for departure or arrival windows.
Regardless of reasons, this emerging destination for American travelers will continue to grow. That is, as long as the incoming government allows this growth to continue.