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US Charter Firms Expect Rise in Cuba Travel Traffic

U.S. charter companies are readying for a surge in the numbers of Cuban-Americans seeking to travel to the Cuba, now that President Obama has dropped restrictions on family visits. Supporters of the decision say ending the 2004 restrictions may help the push for democratic change inside the communist nation. Others disagree, saying the influx of American money could bolster Cuba's government.

Cuban-American neighborhoods in Miami are dotted with specialized firms offering charter airfare and shipping services into Cuba. Decades of U.S. restrictions and trade and travel to the Communist nation mean that only certain people qualify to travel or send goods and money to the island. Monday, President Obama signed an order easing the limits on Cuban-Americans seeking to visit family members on the island.

At the Camaguey travel agency, Amada Roque says many Cuban-Americans have been waiting for the change for some time.

She says she expects to see a surge in Cuban-American travelers unlike anything seen in recent years.

But Roque says few are jumping to buy tickets so soon after Monday's announcement. One problem is that Cuban-Americans, like many others, are hurting in the current economic condition in the United States.

She says travel is a luxury for many people. But in this case, there is a need for people to be with their families.

Keeping campaign promises

Many Cuban-Americans with family on the island say they suffered because of the 2004 rule imposed by former President George W. Bush. The rule limited trips to direct family members, and also limited the frequency to once every three years.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said President Obama made a promise on the campaign trail to change the policy.

"I think maybe the best way to sum this up is the way the President summed this up last year - to say that there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans," said Gibbs.

One leading Miami group, the Cuban-American National Foundation, welcomed the president's decision. Its leader Pepe Hernandez said the old rule was wrong.

"A country that represents democracy should not be in the business of restricting family relationships," said Hernandez.

Cubans welcome decision, ask for more

Critics of Cuba's government say Havana charges hefty currency exchange fees to U.S. travelers. They say an increase in U.S. visitors could boost state coffers.

In Cuba, former President Fidel Castro says the Obama administration's decision to allow unlimited family travel and remittances to Cuba is "positive, but minimal."

Castro wants more changes

In a new online column published Tuesday, Mr. Castro said more changes are needed in U.S. policy toward the island.

Some fear the Havana government could withhold entry visas to stem the flow of Cuban-Americans to the island. But at Miami airport, Cuban-Americans returning home said the news was welcomed on the island.

Public school worker Fidel Pereira had visited his family in Havana.

He said people he knows in the United States and in Cuba are very supportive. He says Cuban-Americans want to help their families, because if they cannot do that, then no one else will.

Back to Cuba

Back at the Camaguey travel agency, Celia Delgado said she was planning for a trip to Havana next month to see a granddaughter she has not seen in years. She said from now on she can visit her family as often as she likes.

Delgado said instead of traveling to Dominican Republic or somewhere else for a vacation weekend, she could be in Cuba with her family, even for just a few days.

More changes ahead

In the U.S.Congress, some lawmakers are working on a measure that would enable all Americans to visit Cuba. Supporters say it could increase the pressure for democratic change in Cuba. But critics disagree. They say decades of visits by Canadians and Europeans have had no impact on the Communist Cuba.

At a summit this weekend in Trinidad and Tobago, Latin American leaders are expected to pressure President Obama to relax U.S. restrictions to Cuba even more.