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Four-decade Old Ban Preventing Americans from Legally
 Visiting Cuba May be Lifted; Estimated 1 million
 Americans Would Visit First Year
By Gregory Richards, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Oct. 25, 2003 - Take a trip to Cuba? Maybe soon.

On Thursday, the Senate voted to lift the four-decade old ban preventing Americans from legally going to the island nation south of the Florida Keys. The House passed a similar measure last month.

And while the White House has threatened a presidential veto of any lifting of the ban, the possibility of it going away has raised both hopes and concerns among the local travel industry.

Among those just waiting to book a flight to Cuba is Martha Valdes-Pellino, who hasn't seen her native Cuba in 42 years.

"I'd love to go back and see my country," said Valdes-Pellino, a member of Jacksonville's Hispanic American Advisory Board. "I'd visit and be one of the first people there."

Some local travel agencies believe raising the prohibition will mean more clients, those hoping to walk the streets of Old Havana and savor Cuba's beaches. After all, that's what vacationers from many other countries -- such as Canada and parts of Europe -- frequently do.

"The Caribbean islands are a kind of 'Been there, done that,' so opening a new island is really a good thing, especially one with as fascinating a history as Cuba," said Shelby Grant, an agent with Discount Travel Brokerage Service on Southside Boulevard.

Already, she gets several calls a month from people hoping to book trips to Cuba.

Despite the ban, the U.S. government grants waivers for groups interested in visiting Cuba for reasons including religious, humanitarian and educational purposes. Chantal Littleton, owner of Mandarin's Business and Pleasure Travel, is planning to offer a trip to Cuba next year to explore the island's artistic treasures.

"There's a lot of great culture in Cuba," she said.

And the absence of a ban, she said, might make the trip more appealing.

But the island's visual appeal may not be enough to draw everyone. There are political considerations too, namely Fidel Castro, the Communist dictator who has ruled the country since 1959.

"I would not send anyone to Cuba," said Maria Hernandez, a Cuban native and travel consultant with Jacksonville Beach's First Coast Travel. "All you're doing is putting more money into the pocket of a dictator."

The state tourism agency is concerned that opening up Cuba to Americans may steal away visitors that otherwise would have gone to the Sunshine State.

"But the upshot is that a goodly chunk of those people who expressed an interest in going to Cuba were interested in combining that with a Florida vacation rather than a stand alone sort of excursion," said Visit Florida spokesman Tom Flanigan, referring to a recent study conducted by the agency.

Most estimates say at least 1 million Americans -- and perhaps many more -- could try to visit Cuba in the first year after a travel opening. Miguel Figueras, adviser to Cuba's Tourism Ministry, said that figure could reach 2.5 million to 3 million in five years.

If the ban should be lifted, questions have arisen about whether Cuba is even ready for an onslaught of American tourists.

The industry is still midsized by regional standards. There are 40,000 hotel rooms on the entire island of Cuba. Cancun, by contrast, has 26,000 hotel rooms alone.

"We have to avoid an avalanche because that is going to affect quality,'' said Antonio Diaz, vice director of Havanatur, a Cuban government travel agency.

He said prices would likely rise to meet the demand and to limit an overload of tourists if Americans start flowing in.

Some industry officials believe Cuba is an especially attractive source of business to a U.S. travel sector hurt recently by terrorism fears and the rise of Internet bookings that bypass agents.

"For the most part, Cuba is not a do-it-yourself market,'' said Matt Grayson, the government affairs director for the National Tour Association. Visitors "are going to need some professional advice.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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(c) 2003, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Fla. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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