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After a lull, more U.S.-Cuba trips get green light

October 02, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds
  • La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar and restaurant in Havana, is a fixture on many Cuban travel itineraries.
La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar and restaurant in Havana, is a fixture on many… (Christopher Reynolds /…)

Updated at 10 a.m. Friday to include comments from a Treasury Department spokeswoman.

American travel to Cuba, which has surged and dwindled through decades of political ups and downs, may soon be surging again.

The key, veteran tour operators say, is the end of an apparent logjam in the handling of travel licenses by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That office is responsible for issuing and renewing the licenses that educational tour operators must have before they can sell Cuba tours to Americans.

The Treasury Department explicitly excludes trips that are “primarily tourist-oriented.” Tour operators that fail to meet guidelines face civil penalties of up to $65,000 per violation.

Less than two years ago, President Obama set off a mini-boom in Cuban travel by relaxing restrictions on “people-to-people” educational trips aimed at promoting “meaningful interaction between travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

After an initial burst of trips — and complaints from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) alleging “rampant abuses” and frivolous itineraries — Obama’s Treasury Department tightened restrictions in May, forcing cancellations and delays that put dozens of educational group trips in doubt.

In late September, however, the tide appeared to turn, tour operators say.

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