It's getting easier to visit Cuba
By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
11:42 p.m. EDT, August 7, 2011
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
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"
"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."