HAVANA, CUBA (WAFB) - Many Louisiana leaders hope the state could one day be a major trading partner with Cuba, but tourism is another opportunity on the horizon as well.
From the streets of old Havana to the walkways along the gulf, many Cubans welcome their American guests with a warmness to match the humid afternoon air.
The tourism industry is hitting its stride on the island nation, and with tensions easing between the U.S. and Cuba, Louisiana leaders said the Bayou State stands to benefit. More tourists means more mouths to feed as imports will be needed to match the growing demand.
"We want to be a major player and to deliver those food and commodities," said Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain.
If and when the embargo is lifted, Strain said Louisiana could play a big role in supplying rice, soybeans and other products. Those supplies could one day pass through the Port of Mariel.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and his team visited the port Wednesday.
"We want to explore what we can do now to increase trade as well," Edwards said.
The Cubans have recently invested extensively in that port, which is located about 25 miles outside of Havana. They hope to make it the new center of regional commerce.
The fate of their dreams, however, may rest in the hands of the U.S. Congress and whether or not they choose to lift the embargo, opening trade.
"For sure we see a larger opportunity, and that means we need to invest more, build more key, build more yard space, bring in more equipment. That's a very exciting prospect for us as well," said Charles Baker, director general of TC Mariel.
The port has ample green space for expansion to include things like new storage facilities and industry. The port is surrounded by forest
Space is a problem, however, at the old shipping hub - the Port of Havana. As the city grew around it, there was no space to expand. As a result, cargo ships are being rerouted up to the Port of Mariel, while they hope to make the old port into a cruise ship destination.
Louisiana business leaders are excited by that change as well, especially those from the Crescent City. At the Port of New Orleans, they are looking for more cruise liners to call their docks home.
"It's one of those segments where we think people will be willing to come to New Orleans and take a cruise to Havana, so that will, in fact, improve our cruise opportunities," said Port of New Orleans' vice president Robert Landry.
As it stands, tourism is still restricted to Cuba for Americans. Travelers need a humanitarian purpose in order to visit by ship. The governor expressed optimism that will change one day.
"I look forward to the day when they can come over and visit, and to take advantage of that opportunity when it's presented which will hopefully be in the very near future," Edwards said.