The April 14 announcement that the Obama administration was easing restrictions on travel to Cuba kept the phones ringing at agencies specializing in travel to that long-embargoed island.
But unfortunately for those agencies, most of the people on the other end of the line were calling because they misunderstood the new rules.
Unless you are a Cuban-American living in the U.S. with family members in Cuba, travel to Cuba by American citizens remains out of reach, at least for now.
The new Cuba policy announced by President Obama eases travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans, and it opens the door a crack on the broader economic embargo that has been in force since 1962 and has effectively banned travel to and trade with Cuba.
The 1.5 million Cuban-Americans residing in the U.S. with relatives living in Cuba can now visit family members as distant as second cousins as often as they want, stay as long as they want and send as much money as they want to any Cuban who is not a senior government or Communist Party official.
And before long, Cuban-Americans will be able to communicate with relatives via cell phone and satellite links as part of the new policy’s broad telecommunications provision.
Obama’s policy in effect cancels the visitation limit imposed by the Bush administration in 2004, which permitted a single, two-week trip every three years to visit immediate family.
The new policy has been applauded by divergent groups that include licensed sellers of travel to Cuba; industry associations, including the National Tour Association and ASTA; and thousands of U.S. citizens who hanker for a Havana view.
A CNN poll released last week showed that 64% of Americans said that the U.S. government should allow citizens to travel to Cuba.
The new policy has its opponents, as well, who contend that restrictions should not be eased until the Cuban government changes some of its existing policies, releases political prisoners and holds free elections.
It also has led to a firestorm of confusion in many quarters.
The phone calls come pouring in
Agents who sell travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans have been inundated with phone calls from U.S. citizens who misunderstood the new policy to mean that the floodgates were now open for travel to Cuba by all Americans.
"There’s mass confusion here," said Jose Gassapo, director of ForCuba.com, a Toronto-based agency that helped account for the more than 2 million Canadian visitors to Cuba in 2008. "Our phone inquiries from Americans jumped 800% in the days after the announcement.
"There’s a pent-up demand and a huge curiosity on the part of Americans to visit Cuba," he said. "I had to explain the new policy hundreds of times."
The company offers charter flights from Toronto, Cancun, Mexico City and Nassau, but Gassapo plans to ramp up the charter operation. "The demand is going to skyrocket, especially when all the restrictions are lifted," he said. "And I think they will be."
For now, he’s setting up some new land tours for Cuban-Americans who not only want to see their families but also the island of their ancestry.
New Jersey-based Maruzel Tours took 38,000 Americans to Cuba in 2004, the last year before Bush tightened just about every category of legal travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, including religious, educational, cultural and exchange programs, as well as most meetings and conventions groups.
Like Gassapo’s group, Maruzel immediately felt the impact of the Obama announcement, fielding hundreds of phone calls and requests.
"There is much confusion right now among the public about who is eligible to travel," said Bob Guild, Maruzel’s program director. "But things are in the works, and I expect that the guidelines and restrictions for other types of travel will change."
Maruzel sells seats on five daily charter flights out of Miami. "These are small planes," he said, "and already I have heard that the aircraft will increase to larger jets, from 60 seats to 165, which indicates a new level of interest."
Even with the easing of restrictions, Cuban-Americans still have to surmount obstacles before they can set foot in Cuba. Those who were born in Cuba, left the island after 1970 and are now U.S. citizens are required by Cuba to obtain a Cuban passport for entry, while a U.S. passport is needed for re-entry into the U.S.
Those born in Cuba but who left Cuba prior to 1970 can travel on a U.S. passport.
Obtaining a Cuban passport from the Cuban Interests Section (housed at the Swiss Embassy in Washington), used to take four weeks, Gassapo said. "There will be a real logjam now," Gassapo predicted.
While the focus for now is on Cuban-American travel, the general feeling is that more change is in the air, perhaps following the Summit of the Americas over the weekend in Trinidad, attended by Obama and 34 heads of state.
"The reality of any change in a U.S. law is that it must be done by and through legislation," said John Kavulich Jr., senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
That issue of lifting the embargo to enable free travel to Cuba for all Americans does not rest solely with Obama, Kavulich noted. "It is a legislative matter that must be passed by Congress and ultimately signed by the president."
Legislation introduced in the Senate and House in recent weeks would repeal travel restrictions on all Americans and U.S. residents, but it is not clear if it will come up for a vote anytime soon.
Although the eventual opening up of Cuba to U.S. tourists could prove a threat to other Caribbean destinations by siphoning off visitors, tourism officials disagreed.
"Cuba is a popular Caribbean destination and an active member of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Any event that helps bring large numbers of new vacationers to the Caribbean and raises the profile of our brand will not only benefit individual destinations but also the entire region," said Hugh Riley, the CTO’s interim secretary general.
Jamaica viewed the easing of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans "not as a threat but as an opportunity for co-marketing and regional cooperation," according to John Lynch, director of tourism.
Currently Air Jamaica operates flights between Jamaica and Cuba, "signifying the potential for further opportunities and relations," Lynch said.