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Flights to Cuba from the Tampa International Airport began in early September after a 50-year hiatus, and local officials are banking on it as a new source of revenue. Airport officials said about 45,000 passengers will travel the route in 2012.

Manny Martinez, a 21-year-old Tampa resident, was standing at the back of the long line four hours before Tuesday’s flight. He said he’s spending two weeks on the island and staying with family. Like Labrada, he said Cuba still feels like home, even though he’s lived in the U.S. for 11 years.

When asked to name the first thing he would do once he arrived, he laughed.

“Party,” he said. “Just go out with my old friends and have fun.”

Not everyone goes just to see family.

Gomez said his maintenance man just returned from a trip to Cuba to visit his dentist because he has no health care insurance in the U.S. and can’t afford the visit here. Meanwhile, media reports are on the rise in South Florida about Cuban-Americans involved in Medicare fraud fleeing to the island.

Back at the Miami airport, Isabel Baez, 39, teared up as she talked about visiting her family in Santiago de Cuba. Yet, she said she knows of people who also go as “mules,” taking much needed provisions for others on the island who are not relatives, sometimes even for resale.

“But most of those people still go to see their family,” she said. “They bring the packages as a way to get a free ticket.”


Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report from Tampa, Fla.