Havana, Cuba (CNN)Hours before the airline offices open for the day, hundreds of Cubans wait in line, hoping to snag a hard-to-find ticket off the island.
For many Cubans, it is only the beginning of a long and often dangerous journey to the United States.
Throughout much of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cuba's borders were closed, making international travel nearly impossible.
But as the island now reopens to the outside world and Cubans deal with worsening food and medical shortages, the impact of tougher US economic sanctions and the government's own crackdown following unprecedented protests in July, scores say they are preparing to leave their homeland for good.
Amid the crowds outside the airline offices at Havana's business center, a self-described "facilitator" named Sergio, who did not want to give his last name given the nature of the service he was providing, offered to use his contacts to help people cut the long lines in exchange for "a percentage" of the ticket price.
"Most of these people aren't coming back," Sergio told CNN, adding: "Maybe some will go to Nicaragua to buy things -- but the majority are emigrating."
Their exodus is complicated as most countries require that Cubans obtain a visa. Covid-19 only complicates their plight. To enter the US, Cubans must have proof of vaccination with an FDA-approved vaccine or one that has received emergency use listing from the World Health Organization, which most Cubans on the island don't have access to.
Cuba is still in the process of certifying its homegrown vaccines with the WHO. That means that Cubans with a visa to the US still aren't able to legally travel there without first getting vaccinated in a third country.
In November, Cuba's close ally Nicaragua waived its visa requirement, meaning any Cuban with the money to buy a plane ticket could travel there and potentially on to the US-Mexico border.
Nicaragua's government said it was opening the door to Cubans to encourage commerce, tourism and family reunification.
Critics of Cuba and Nicaragua's socialist governments accuse them of trying to provoke a migrant crisis -- like those that took place on the island in the 1980s and 90s -- that would allow thousands of Cubans fed up with the island's economic instability to leave.
"The Biden administration should respond rapidly and take this for what it is, a hostile act," Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said in a statement.
A global odyssey
After the Nicaraguan government announced it was lifting its visa requirement, ticket prices on the airline Copa -- which sells bookings from Havana to the Nicaraguan capital Managua via Panama City -- skyrocketed. On Wednesday, Conviasa, the national airline of Venezuela, also Cuba's ally, began operating direct flights from Havana to Managua.
It is not clear how many Cubans will travel to Nicaragua with the ultimate goal of reaching the United States. In October -- before the change was made -- 5,870 Cuban migrants were taken into custody by US Customs and Border Protection along the border with Mexico, marking the highest number in over two years.
Although still more expensive than many Cubans can afford, the route through Nicaragua will be significantly cheaper and more direct than those already taken by many leaving the island during the pandemic.