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Tourism industry ups pressure to lift Cuba travel ban

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Cubans have become accustomed to foreign tourists in recent years, but the procession of vintage Chevrolets and cute Cuban coco-taxis ferried an unusual group along the Malecón seafront last weekend.

Three dozen US travel executives, the first American travel delegation in 40 years, hit the streets of Havana Sunday. The group was on an unprecedented mission: to explore the potential of the Cuban tourist market, but also to thumb their nose at the US government's travel restrictions to the communist island.

Coming as it did just days after President Bush's announcement of a tightening of loopholes in the travel ban, the group's one-day foray stands as a stark reminder that most Americans favor having the right to travel wherever they choose - including to the Caribbean dictatorship.

"This is a historic moment," says one trip organizer, Kirby Jones, of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm on US-Cuba relations. "We all want to see the travel ban to Cuba lifted. It is no longer a question of if; it is only a question of when."

Yet while that remains broadly true, experts in US-Cuba relations say the "when" isn't likely to be as soon as the protravel camp once hoped.

A major reason: A particularly harsh crackdown by Cuban President Fidel Castro on 75 prodemocracy dissidents earlier this year has taken some of the wind out of the sails of those who favor of normalized relations with Cuba. With even Democratic presidential hopefuls saying now is not the time to lift the restrictions, prospects for an easing in the next 12 months seem dim.

Currently, US citizens are banned under the Trading With the Enemies Act from spending more than $300 on a visit to Cuba without a special waiver from the US Treasury Department. The travel operators were able to visit Cuba legally because of a loophole in the ban that allows trips that are hosted and don't involve spending money.

In announcing his Oct. 10 tightening on Cuba travel, Bush said tourist dollars spent in Cuba simply line the pockets of a dictatorial regime. Observers say the new travel restrictions are likely to fall disproportionately on academics and other Americans already hard hit by stricter controls imposed in March that eliminated other exemptions.

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