MIAMI — Although Cuba theoretically remains off limits to American tourists, as it has for most of the 37 years of Fidel Castro's rule, more and more U.S. citizens are traveling to the Communist island in defiance of the spirit of the Trading With the Enemy Act.
Travel experts estimate that as many as 16,000 Americans will go to Cuba this year as tourists, aboard U.S. charters from the United States, on commercial flights from Mexico, Jamaica or the Bahamas, or on private boats, often from Key West, Fla. On some weekends, recent visitors report, Cuba's Marina Hemingway near Havana is jammed with U.S. yachts.
An additional 70,000 Cuban Americans are expected to travel to the island under revised federal rules that permit one annual visit to relatives in cases of "extreme humanitarian need." No proof of that need is required.
"There is a growing demand for travel to Cuba, so let's stop this screwing around," said Richard Thakin, a spokesman for Wings of the World, a Buffalo, N.Y., travel agency and an opponent of the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
Last year, Thakin's agency sent more than 2,000 Americans on Cuban vacations.
This year, he expects to book more than 2,500 Americans on prepaid package tours to the island, where they can visit Havana's Tropicana nightclub, rent a car and explore the Sierra Maestra mountains or join thousands of Canadians, Germans and other vacationers on the white-sand beaches of Varadero.
"More and more I overhear American English in Havana restaurants," said Francisco Aruca, a Cuban American businessman who travels frequently to the island.
Despite official U.S. policy, travelers are rarely prosecuted. And travel agencies are careful to avoid violating the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.
While no law expressly forbids U.S. citizens and permanent residents to travel to Cuba, federal regulations accomplish that goal by requiring special permission to travel there and by prohibiting U.S. travelers from spending any money there.
Issued in 1963 as part of the U.S. trade embargo against Castro's policies, the regulations are enforced by the U.S. Treasury Department. Violations carry a potential penalty of 10 years in jail and as much as $250,000 in fines.
A Treasury Department spokesman said that 16 civil actions, resulting in fines of $207,000, were initiated in the past fiscal year; most of the cases involved contraband.
"Uncle Sam does not use criminal prosecutions with frequency," the spokesman said. "But Uncle Sam does take the law very seriously, and the law does prohibit unauthorized travel."
An October rule change, which obviated the need for a special license to travel to Cuba, has so increased the flow of Cuban American travelers that both Miami charter companies that fly to Havana added Boeing 747 jumbo jets to the 45-minute runs last week.
If the projection of 70,000 Cuban American visitors holds, it would be the most in any year since 1979, when the Castro government permitted exiles to return and 100,000 people traveled to the island.
"We've been at 100% capacity on our three weekly flights, and it looks like it's going to continue," Mario Yedo of C & T Charters said.
Scholars, academic researchers and journalists visit Cuba under an exemption provided by the U.S. regulations. But officials of organizations that arrange such trips report receiving dozens of inquiries each day from people who just want a Cuban vacation.
"These are spontaneous travelers, cigar lovers or people who just want to see what it's like," said Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.
If the callers are not legitimate researchers, organizations such as Levinson's cannot help.
But Thakin can, by enrolling travelers as members of escorted seminars devoted to any one of several subjects, including Afro-Cuban culture, holistic medicine, agriculture or "socially responsible investment."
All expenses are prepaid, which avoids technical violation of U.S. law. The average cost of a 10-day tour, including air fare from Mexico, is $1,300.
While admitting that sending tourists to Cuba violates the spirit of the U.S. regulations, Thakin said, "This is responsible tourism which contributes to the well-being of Cuba."
Hard-line opponents of Castro argue that increased travel to the island only serves to pump more U.S. dollars into the puny Cuban economy, thereby sustaining Castro's tenure.
In September, the House of Representatives approved a measure, called the Helms-Burton bill, to tighten the trade embargo by further restricting travel to the island.
The Senate has not voted on the measure, which the Clinton administration opposes.
In the meantime, "Americans are voting with their feet," according to Eddie Levy, a Cuban-born Miamian who heads Jewish Solidarity, a group working to rebuild Cuba's small Jewish community by leading tours and ferrying supplies to the island several times a year.