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Barriers to visiting island nation remain

Written by editor

After nearly five decades in which U.S.

After nearly five decades in which U.S. travelers were largely forbidden from going to Cuba, President Barack Obama’s decision to significantly roll back travel limits could make the island accessible again to large numbers of U.S. visitors.

But significant logistical and legal barriers remain before Americans can flock en masse to the rum bars of Havana.

The Obama administration on Monday announced it was lifting limits on family travel and money transfers to Cuba, though a broader economic embargo introduced by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 remains in place. The new travel policy applies to U.S. citizens and U.S. residents with family members in the island.

Laws introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives in recent weeks would go even further, repealing travel restrictions on all Americans and U.S. residents. The bills have bipartisan sponsors, but it isn’t clear whether they will come up for a vote anytime soon.

The shift announced Monday by the White House is likely to spur a significant increase in visits by Americans to Cuba. Still, Cuba is long way from retaking the role it held as a hotbed of American tourism before the Cuban revolution erupted in the 1950s. “It won’t just happen overnight,” said Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., that advises companies about Cuba.

U.S. travel businesses have long eyed Cuba, the Caribbean’s biggest island, as a promising future market. Though its economy languished amid half a century of authoritarian rule, Cuba still captures the imagination of travelers eager to see its beaches, lush mountain trails and Havana’s colonial-era scenery.

For decades, millions of tourists, mostly from Europe, Canada and Latin America, have visited the country. More than 2.3 million travelers visited last year, according to Cuba’s Office of National Statistics. A recent report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, a federal agency, forecast as many as one million Americans per year eventually would visit Cuba if allowed.

As international tourism grew in recent years, the Cuban government expanded airports. Likewise, the country’s hotel inventory, though a hodgepodge of crumbling old state-run buildings and newer properties managed by foreign partners, has been growing—from just over 50,000 rooms at the start of the decade to nearly 56,000 at the end of 2007, according to government figures.

Just 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida, Cuba would be a short hop for most major U.S. airlines. Delta Air Lines Inc., Continental Airlines Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, which operates a major hub in Miami, all have hubs from which aircraft could reach the island in about two hours or less.

But for now, access to the island from the U.S. is very limited. Currently, Cuba-bound travelers from the U.S. rely on tour operators who organize charter flights authorized to make the journey. Major airlines would need the government to negotiate a bilateral aviation agreement with Cuba before they could start regular scheduled service. Even after President Jimmy Carter eased travel rules to Cuba in 1977, no such agreement was negotiated before President Ronald Reagan reinstituted a blanket ban.

“We’d like to fly there, but at the moment have no idea what the legal framework would be,” said Ben Baldanza, chief executive of Spirit Airlines Inc., a Miramar, Fla., airline that flies throughout the Caribbean and to parts of Latin America. Representatives for Delta, American, and Continental contacted last week declined to comment on any eventual Cuba plans.

Cruise companies, which regularly sail around Cuba on Caribbean itineraries, must evaluate whether the country’s aging port facilities meet their ships’ logistical and security needs. Even in developed countries, popular harbors are easily overburdened, placing a strain on the efficiency of port calls and shore excursions.

Some European vessels have long called at Cuban ports, but many avoid it because Washington’s embargo prohibits ships that visit Cuba from docking at U.S. ports.

Even Fidel Castro has at times discouraged cruise visits. In 2005, he dismissed foreign ships as “floating diversions [that] visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans, and papers for a few miserable cents.”

The U.S. Coast Guard also has designated Cuba as one of 11 countries, including Syria, Iran, and Venezuela, whose port operators don’t do enough to secure vessels from terrorist threats. That means that under U.S. Coast Guard regulations, ships visiting Cuba would have to add armed guards on vessels while they are docked in Cuban ports and other higher security steps.

“Cuba’s on our hot list, but there’s a lot that we’d have to look at before we decided to go,” said Tim Rubacky, a spokesman for Miami-based Oceania Cruises Inc., a privately held operator of upscale cruises. “It’s almost a matter of tempering expectations.”