U.S. companies line up as Cuba embargo eases

Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) Google is set to expand broadband and Wi-Fi across Cuba, joining a raft of companies big and small eager to set up shop in the island nation as relations between its government and the U.S. administration move closer to normalizing.

The announcement Monday was made by President Barack Obama, who Sunday began a three-day trip to Cuba, the first by a sitting U.S. chief executive in nearly 90 years.

Along with Alphabet, many other American companies are considering investing in Cuba, as some restrictions of the decades-long U.S. economic embargo against Cuba are eased.

They include AT&T (T), which could join Sprint (S) and Verizon (VZ) in providing roaming services on the island.

The travel industry, keen on cashing in on Americans' curiosity about Cuba, has so far seen the most activity. Among them is Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT), which beat out several other hospitality companies that have been trying to invest in hotels in Cuba, including Marriott International (MAR).

Other hospitality businesses seeking an opening into Cuba include Priceline Group (PCLN), which announced Monday it has agreed to make Cuban hotel rooms available to U.S. customers via its subsidiary Booking.com, a first for a U.S. online travel agency. Also, Airbnb, the website devoted to short-term apartment rentals, said it has received authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department to expand its home rental listings in Cuba to non-U.S. travelers. Previously, Airbnb was only licensed to do business in Cuba with travelers from the U.S.

Ken Siegel, Starwood's general counsel is among a group of U.S. business executives traveling with the president. Others include: Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox; Arne Storenson, president and CEO, Marriott; Daymond John, CEO, Fubu; Daniel Schulman, CEO, PayPal; and Airbnb President and founder Brian Chesky.

Among airlines, 13 U.S. carriers have requested to fly at least 52 flights a day, far exceeding the 20 daily round-trip flights agreed to by the U.S. and Cuba. American Airlines (AAL) and JetBlue Airways (JBLU) have each proposed 12 daily flights to Havana, while Southwest Airlines (LUV) has proposed nine and Delta Air Lines (DAL) five. By contrast, United Airlines, the nation's third-largest carrier, has proposed just one daily flight -- from its hub in Newark. Smaller carriers, including budget carriers Frontier and Spirit Airlines (SAVE), have also proposed daily flights.

Caterpillar (CAT) is also looking to make inroads in Cuba. In February, the heavy-equipment maker said it had signed a deal with Puerto Rico-based Rimco to begin the process of selling its products in Cuba. A much smaller potential rival, Cleber Tractor, hopes to have a plant up and running next year near Havana, turning out 1,000 small, inexpensive tractors annually.

Obama's visit to Cuba is unprecedented and hugely symbolic, but of greater significance were the latest round of measures to ease the U.S. embargo announced before he departed for Havana, Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst at IHS, said. Though the U.S. government maintains an official ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, the Obama administration has eased restrictions on licensed tourist visits, "effectively putting a Cuban vacation within reach for U.S. citizens," Moya-Ocampos said.

A CBS/New York Times poll released Monday shows slightly more than half (51 percent) of Americans now have a favorable impression of Cuba. Prior to this year, Gallup polling consistently showed more negative than positive views of Cuba. In 1996, for example, nearly 9 in 10 Americans viewed the country unfavorably.

Gallup's poll also found 6 in 10 Americans think restoring diplomacy with Cuba is mostly good for the U.S., but views are mixed on whether it will lead to more democracy in Cuba.