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Orbitz launches petition drive to end Cuba travel ban

A new website allows people to petition the U.S. government to end restrictions on travel to the island, a prized, but off-limits, destination for the travel industry.

May 16, 2009|Julie Johnsson

Blending commerce with politics, Orbitz Worldwide has launched a campaign to reverse a law that prohibits travel to Cuba for most U.S. citizens and green-card holders.

Through the Open Cuba website, visitors can petition the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and members of Congress to eliminate the Kennedy-era trade and travel restrictions.

U.S. airlines and cruise and tour operators are eager to launch travel to the Caribbean's largest island.

President Obama raised their hopes by encouraging a dialogue with Cuba's communist government and by removing restrictions on family visits by Cuban Americans.

It is not assured that Congress will take the next step and repeal the ban, which remains a prickly political issue. The Obama administration isn't pushing Congress to act, and opponents say it would be folly to do so without significant reforms by Cuba.

Borrowing a page from the Obama presidential campaign, Chicago-based Orbitz is trying to build grass-roots support for opening travel to Cuba by appealing to the 14 million monthly visitors to its website.

"We want to organize our customers and other interested parties to reach out to Obama and other government officials," said Barney Harford, Orbitz's president and chief executive.

Energized by a White House visit with the president in March, Harford decided to rally his company behind a social cause and selected Cuba.

Orbitz, however, risks being seen as exploitative, since it stands to profit.

Those who lobby via the new site will receive a $100 coupon toward a Cuba vacation redeemable if the travel ban is lifted and flights and tour packages can be sold legally by Orbitz.

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jjohnsson@tribune.com

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