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Obama's new Cuba policy expected to boost travel to island

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Travel agents excited about easing of restraints on Cuba travel

President Barack Obama's outreach to Cuba is stoking a pent-up demand for travel to the once-forbidden island, boosting prospects for more flights from Florida airports and raising expectations that the policy of openness will lead to new cruise adventures.

Tour operators are gearing up for a burst of travelers. Would-be visitors are exploring new options. And cruise lines are dusting off contingency plans on the renewed hope that the ban on tourism eventually will be lifted.

"It opens up a tremendous array of possibilities," said Silvia Wilhelm, of Miami, who has been escorting American visitors on cultural tours of Cuba while lobbying for changes to facilitate travel. "You still can't go simply as a tourist. But the terrible bureaucratic process we have had to go through every time to renew a license to travel, all that has been put aside."

Obama's policy encourages travel, establishes phone and Internet links, allows some business trips and eases bureaucratic restraints on educational tours, which will widen the flow of visitors across the Florida Straits.

The new rules will expand the categories of Americans permitted to go to Cuba on a general license for purposeful visits. Those categories will allow trips for athletic competitions, professional research, performances and exhibitions, business meetings and humanitarian missions.

The rules also will allow Americans to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, which reduces the risk of carrying lots of cash.

Pleasure trips and general-purpose tourism will still be banned, but administration officials made clear they want more Americans to establish contacts with the Cuban people. The new categories are so broad that they open a pathway for most anyone who is determined to visit Cuba.

Florida travel companies are likely to benefit, industry insiders and legal analysts say, though full details of new initiatives aren't expected for several weeks.

"Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, and it presents numerous opportunities from a cruise industry perspective," said Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Miami-based Carnival Corp. & PLC. "Some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country, along with several ports, so it offers great potential, but there are other issues that will need to be taken into consideration if this market opens up."

Cruise sellers say operators already have contingency plans for when travel limits are lifted and Americans can freely experience Cuba's beaches, arts and rich heritage.

"Each of the cruise lines have developed 'what if' game plans for Cuban tourism and have been waiting for this embargo to be lifted so they can sail there,' said Vicky Garcia, co-owner and COO of Coral Springs-based Cruise Planners. "The cruise lines are going to invest big dollars in Cuba's ports to bring them up to standards for American tourists."

Garcia, a Miami-born Cuban American, said Cuban culture will offer an authentic experience travelers will welcome. "The diversity of Cuba as a cruise port gives travelers a different and conveniently close itinerary — instead of the Bahamas and Key West," she said.

Air travel suppliers also plan to tap Cuba's travel possibilities.

"We are very much interested in exploring flights that we can offer point-to-point [service] from our hub cities in our Florida home," said Silver Airways CEO Sami Teittinen.

Miami International Airport through November has served 631,955 passengers on 7,008 flights to Cuba this year, up slightly from 605,399 on 6,324 flights during the same period last year.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has one charter flight per week on Fridays operated by Xael Charters using a JetBlue Airways aircraft to Havana, a spokesman said. The airport also services flights on Mondays and Thursdays by IBC Air to Guantanamo Bay, landing on U.S.-controlled territory near a military base.

Many would-be travelers say they want to see Cuba before it is transformed by development and expanded tourism.

Robert Rudner, 85, of Boynton Beach, just wants to see the Cuban town where he was born and raised before his family left when he was 8.

He has been blocked from returning because he no longer has family in Cuba to visit and is daunted by the cost of educational tours. But he figures the new rules will open up more possibilities for affordable travel.

"I'm going to call the travel agency right now," Rudner said last week. "I'm going to tell them: 'When you are ready, I'm going to be your first customer.' "

wgibson@Tribune.com, 202-824-8256.

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