WASHINGTON -- Betsy Blades has been curious about Cuba ever since 1959 when she was 15 years old and watched news clips of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
The retired social worker from Baltimore, now 68, will seize a chance to visit the forbidden island on Thursday when she joins an educational tour, the first under President Barack Obama’s new “people-to-people” travel rules.
“We’re not going to be sunning or spending time at the beach,” Blades said. “I am just trying to make a connection with the Cuban people. Just by going, I can show them a normal American.”
Obama’s new rules have uncorked half a century of pent-up demand to visit a land still restricted to American tourists. Virtually any American can now go to Cuba legally through tours run by licensed educational, religious and cultural groups.
Blades will fly to Havana via Miami, the traditional route to Cuba. But travelers next month also will have the option of taking nonstop flights from airports in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.
Starting Sept. 12, Airline Brokers Company will provide charter flights to Havana from the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport using a JetBlue Airways Airbus, the company announced last week.
“We have a lot of Cuban-Americans all the way up to West Palm Beach who are extremely excited about it,” said Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers. “And we will have other Americans who can travel for religious and educational tours from other parts of the country.”
On Sept. 10, ABC Charters plans to begin nonstop flights to Havana from Tampa International Airport.
The new “people-to-people” trips are expected to nearly double the traffic to Cuba, which already has swelled to an estimated 400,000 passengers a year since Obama’s decision in 2009 to allow Cuban-Americans to visit their families as often as they want.
The airports welcome the opportunity to serve more travelers from South and Central Florida. But their main goal is to position themselves to tap a wider stream of tourists if the U.S. government drops all restrictions on leisure travel to Cuba.
A consumer survey conducted by Travel Leaders, a booking agency, in April and May found that 75 percent of those polled would at least consider a trip to Cuba if restrictions were lifted.
“It just makes no sense to separate them from us economically,” said Ed Falzarano, 68, an insurance executive in Longwood who wants to attend the annual cigar festival in Cuba. “The embargo served a purpose in the Cold War days. Now it’s time to come out of the dark ages.”
The new educational tours will provide an outlet for Americans who want to see Cuba before it is transformed by political upheavals, massive development or flocks of American tourists.
The rules announced in January in effect resume a policy begun by then-President Bill Clinton in 1999 to loosen travel restrictions and reach out to the Cuban people through cultural exchanges. That policy ended in late 2003 when then-President George W. Bush tightened travel rules to choke the Castro regime by depriving it of American dollars – a policy still espoused by Cuban-American members of Congress.
Miami Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz Balart are urging federal officials to crack down on travel agencies that they say are openly promoting leisure-trip tourism to Cuba.
Diaz-Balart also has tucked a provision into a House appropriations bill that would block the Treasury Department from allowing Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to Cuba. The bill – expected to come to the House floor next month -- would re-impose the Bush rules, which allow Cubans-Americans to visit Cuba only once every three years.
“It’s become a huge revenue source for the Castro regime,” Diaz-Balart said last week. “Some people are going many times and staying for months and months. Some are doing it for business, others are doing it for tourism. We are going to stop that abuse.”
Diaz-Balart said the frequent trips have jeopardized the special asylum provided to Cubans, who become legal residents once they set foot in this country. “My [House] colleagues ask me, `If they go back and forth without limit, why do we let them in, in the first place?”’
Travelers like Blades, who took advantage of the Clinton rules to make her first trip to Cuba in 2003, discount these objections.
“I didn’t think a lot about the embargo, but once I got there I thought, `This is silly. It’s just mean-spirited,”’ Blades said last week. “I am not an apologist for the Cuban government at all. I would just like things to be easier for the Cuban people here as well as there.”
Blades will join 15 others on a tour run by Insight Cuba, a division of a non-profit group based in New Rochelle, N.Y., that fosters international volunteering and cultural exchanges.
Insight Cuba was one of the first groups to be licensed under the Obama policy, and its trip on Thursday is believed to be the first since the new rules took effect. It’s designed to offer more than sun-and-fun.
“We do not take people for scuba diving or to beach resorts,” said director Tom Popper.
Itineraries are packed with social and cultural activities, such as visits to art studios, music schools and orphanages – all designed for meaningful interaction with Cubans.
“The memories we cherish when we travel are the interactions with the local people — and the food we sometimes eat — not necessarily the architecture we see or the landscapes,” Popper said.
Visitors do have time, he said, for such things as strolling along the beachfront at sunset, touring museums or stopping by ice cream parlors.
Insight Cuba expects to bring 5,000 Americans to Cuba in groups of 16 over the next 12 months. The Treasury Department has provided special licenses to more than 30 other groups, which will bring more passengers through Florida airports.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said her constituents welcome more access to Cuba and more travel-related business for Central Florida.
“Most people aren’t focused on overthrowing the Cuban government or changing anything,” she said. “The overriding impression is that the embargo —- this closed relationship — simply has not resulted in any change in the eality that is the Cuban government.”
Staff writer Doreen Hemlock contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-824-8256Copyright © 2015, CT Now