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Tour operators report rise in travel bookings to Cuba  May 07, 2009

Thanks to the Obama administration’s relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba back in March, the number of Cuban Americans booking trips to the island is up 20 percent from last year, according to travel agents.

The majority of the seven authorized Cuba tour operators in the United States report that business has been brisk for the last two months, with even more passengers expected to travel over the summer.

One company has upped its charter flight capacity by 150 percent for June.

On March 10 the U.S. Senate passed a bill easing Bush-era travel restrictions to Cuba. Since 2004 only Cuban Americans with close relatives on the island were allowed to travel to Cuba, and they were restricted to going only once every three years for 14 days at a time. They were not permitted to spend any money there.

The new rules allow travelers to go once a year, stay as long as they want, and spend as much as $179 per day. The definition of “relative” was also expanded to include cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles in addition to parents, grandparents, children, and siblings.

Travel industry insiders think that it’s just a matter of time before all travel restrictions are lifted, which would allow any American to visit Cuba, not just those with relatives there. Legislation to that effect was introduced into Congress a month ago, but there is no word yet on its chances of passing.

Many of the Cuba travel agencies are fielding an increased number of calls from school groups, cultural organizations and ordinary citizens who want to be among the first to visit if and when the rules do change again.

Cuba’s annual tourism convention this week was abuzz with talk of the possible “American tsunami,” a term tour operators have coined to describe the anticipated deluge of Americans that will occur if the restrictions are fully lifted.

Cuban tourism officials say that they would welcome the arrival of Americans, and are looking forward to the normalization of travel between the two countries. Americans have not been able to freely travel to the Communist nation since 1958.

The seven government-approved U.S. tour operators that offer trips to Cuba are also looking forward to sending more people to the island, but they marvel at how different attitudes are now compared to 30 years ago.

Back then, Cuba travel agencies were targets of politically-motivated violence perpetrated by anti-Castro militants who disapproved of any contact between the U.S. and Cuba. They believed that the agencies were infiltrated by Communist agents.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, 12 travel agencies in Miami were damaged or destroyed by pipe bombs. But now, even the Cuban American National Foundation, formerly one of the most rigidly dogmatic exile groups, supports travel to the island.

Tour operators report rise in travel bookings to Cuba
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