WASHINGTON -- Direct charter flights to Cuba from New York's Kennedy Airport and Los Angeles airport are scheduled to begin this fall, marking the first flights from those gateways since the U.S. embargo on travel to Cuba was imposed in 1962.

Although the ban on tourism to Cuba remains, the move had been hinted at in January when the Clinton administration announced a package of initiatives designed to loosen restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba.

The charter carriers operating from the two airports will need DOT approval.

Three U.S.-based charter companies currently operate more than 10 flights per week from Miami to Cuba. The new flights will be limited to certain categories of U.S. citizens, as current flights are.

Additional U.S. gateways expected to join the list by December include Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and New Orleans, according to John Kauvlich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a private nonprofit organization based in New York. Denver may well join the gateway roster by next spring, Kauvlich said.

Market demand and the availability of Customs and Immigration personnel to handle the extra workload dictatd the gateway choices. Kauvlich pointed out that the second-largest population of Cuban-Americans is located in northern New Jersey (Miami has the largest), "so Kennedy Airport will be a more effective departure point for them in terms of cost and time," Kauvlich said.

The opening of the two new gateways "is consistent with Clinton's incremental-step policy toward Cuba," according to Kauvlich. However, the measure is expected to have little impact on tourism to Cuba.

Mike McNair, president of McNair Travel Management/American Express in Alexandria, Va., described the move as "one small step for man awaiting a large step for mankind."

"This is a signal in the right direction. I'm looking forward to moving into the Cuba market when it opens up," McNair said.

Cuban tourism figures from the Trade and Economic Council indicate that more than 1.7 million visitors will travel to Cuba this year, up from 1.4 million in 1998. Travelers from the U.S. numbered about 150,000 in 1998.

These included not only Cuban-Americans on annual visits to family members but also journalists, academics, government officials and businesspeople on fully-hosted itineraries.

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