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U.S. Tour Operators Visiting Cuba

October 19, 2003

HAVANA (AP) _ About 40 U.S. tour operators visited Cuba on Sunday, ignoring their government’s toughening crackdown on American travel to the communist island.

The Americans flew here for a firsthand look at Cuba’s tourist locales after a two-day Cuba travel conference in the Mexican Caribbean resort of Cancun.

U.S. travel companies have been fighting for an end to the restrictions, even as President Bush has pushed to tighten them.

After a morning flight to Havana, the group was whisked off for a tour of some of Havana’s hotels, a walk across the cobblestone streets of historic Old Havana, and a visit with communist officials in the Plaza of the Revolution.

Conference organizer Kirby Jones of Washington said a loophole in the U.S. travel restrictions had allowed them to visit the island legally for the day because they were fully hosted and did not spend any money.

The group was flying back to Cancun Sunday evening.

The U.S. Treasury Department effectively prohibits most Americans from traveling here by making it illegal for them to spend money on the island.

Cuba’s growing tourist industry accounts for 40 percent of the government’s foreign income. It expects 1.9 million tourists this year, most from Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, France and Britain.

About 200,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba last year, putting the United States second behind Canada as a source of travelers to the island, according to travel industry experts.

Of those, perhaps 50,000 came illegally through third countries such as Jamaica, Canada or Mexico to disguise their trips. Bush administration officials recently vowed to dedicate anti-terrorism resources to restrict that practice.

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