Cuba tourism bid fails in Congress

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WASHINGTON -- Efforts to revive travel to Cuba died in Congress as lawmakers opposed to the plan succeeded in affirming the existing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

House and Senate members conferring over an agriculture bill, which now awaits President Clinton's signature, agreed to ease certain trade restrictions with Cuba, but in doing so, stripped out language that would have opened regular tourism to Cuba.

The bill makes clear that the "secretary of treasury, or any other Federal official, may not authorize" travel to Cuba "for tourist activities."

That dashed the efforts of Rep. Marshall Sanford (R-S.C.), a member of the House International Relations Committee, and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who separately sponsored bills to relax the travel embargo.

Language from Sanford's bill, approved by the House, originally was folded into the agriculture bill before conferees striped it out.

Sanford and Dodd contend that the longstanding travel embargo to Cuba has done little to topple President Fidel Castro's regime, so it should be lifted.

But the opposition argues any revenue derived from tourism only would extend Castro's rule by providing new funding for his cash-starved government.

"A small number of individuals in Congress may have succeeded in hijacking the democratic process" by stripping out language from the Sanford bill, said Dodd, during comments on the Senate floor.

In an interview with Travel Weekly, Sanford was equally blunt.

"There is a lot of irony in using Communist-style tactics to circumvent the will of the House on travel to Cuba," Sanford said.

"The vote of the majority didn't matter," he added. "What mattered was what happened in a smoke-filled room, which is what happens in Communist countries like Cuba."

Sanford predicted the issue would be revisited if the Democrats wrest control of the Congress from the Republicans in the next election.

In other news, President Clinton was expected to sign a transportation appropriations bill (H.R. 4475) that provides $1 million funding for the National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice in the Airline Industry.

The nine-member commission emerged out of legislation crafted by ASTA and the Coalition for Travel Industry Parity.

At least one agent and one airline representative will be named to the commission, which is expected to deliver a report on the airline industry to Congress after six months.

The same appropriations bill includes language that keeps the Transportation Department from instituting new "hours of service" rules, pending further research.

The American Bus Association and the National Tour Association had lobbied against the rule changes, which they said were generally geared for truckers.

They said that if the controversial new rules mandating specific rest times for motorcoach drivers had been adopted, tour operators would have had to significantly extend or shorten vacation packages and possibly increase tour prices in order to accommodate drivers' mandatory rest times.

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