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Defying Crackdown, Travel Executives Visit Cuba

October 20, 2003|From Reuters

Three dozen U.S. travel industry executives defied a Bush administration crackdown on American travel to communist Cuba and visited the island on Sunday to study its future business potential.

The group, whose industry stands to gain the most from the lifting of a U.S. ban on travel to Cuba currently being debated in Congress, was welcomed with a champagne breakfast to the strains of salsa music and a tour of the city's hotels.

The one-day visit, which included a stop at Havana's Revolution Square and meetings with ruling Communist Party leaders, is part of the first U.S.-Cuba travel conference held at the Mexican resort of Cancun.

The group included Matt Grayson, vice president of the National Tour Assn., whose members take 1 million American tourists a year on Caribbean holidays.

"Coming on the heels of Bush's speech, this is a clear demonstration that interest in Cuba remains strong and the debate on ending the travel ban will continue," said Phil Peters of the Lexington Institution, a Washington think tank that favors repeal of sanctions against Cuba.

Americans can visit Cuba only with special permits from the U.S. Treasury Department under a 41-year-old trade embargo against President Fidel Castro's government.

The executives visited Havana for one day using a loophole in the trade embargo: They were fully hosted and did not spend a dime. The travel ban prohibits U.S. citizens from spending dollars in Cuba rather than specifically banning visits.

With its sun, sand, Spanish colonial architecture and music and dancing, Cuba offers an attractive destination for Americans, the tour operators said.

Once the hottest American playground in the Caribbean, with Mafia-run casinos and prostitution rings, Cuba is banking on the return of American tourism to increase its main source of hard currency and shore up a cash-strapped one-party state.

An increasing number of Americans visit Cuba without Treasury licensing, many drawn by the curiosity of visiting the forbidden island and seeing the hemisphere's only communist society.

Bush on Oct. 10 announced steps to speed up political change in Cuba, promising that Washington would crack down on unauthorized travel to the island.

The House last month voted for a fourth year in a row to end the travel restrictions, and the Senate is expected to follow suit. Bush has vowed to veto any move to end the travel ban, saying U.S. tourist dollars would prop up a repressive government in Cuba.

Cuban officials say about 100,000 Cuban Americans and 50,000 other U.S. citizens visited the country legally last year. An additional 30,000 came through third countries without the Treasury Department's permission.

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