The White House said yesterday that President Bush does not support lifting travel restrictions to Cuba, even as travel agents prepared for a potential gold rush of tourists.
“The president thinks it’s important to send a strong message of standing strong against oppression in Cuba,” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
The House voted 240-186 Wednesday to pass a measure that would allow Americans to travel to Cuba. The Senate is working on several similar bills.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said yesterday he backs the proposal and is optimistic about its chances in the Senate.
While conceding that he had not counted votes, and that he did not want to unreasonably raise expectations, Mr. Daschle said: “I just sense that there is a growing momentum behind taking small actions like this.”
He said he supports opening Cuba to tourism. “I think it’s important that we make these incremental moves. I believe that it would be helpful for both countries to have a greater opportunity for travel and for visits of this kind.”
Spending U.S. money in the communist nation, such as for a hotel or food, is illegal although travel to Cuba is not. So the island has not been a popular tourist destination for Americans since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
But in recent years, the U.S. government has eased its sanctions against Cuba by allowing the export of first-aid products and giving the green light to direct flights from Miami, and eventually New York and Los Angeles.
The U.S. government last year issued some 30,000 visas to Americans for academic and cultural visits to Cuba. The Cuban government says nearly 80,000 Americans visited, so the majority of travelers are sneaking in via countries like Mexico, Canada and Jamaica, or the Bahamas.
“I call Cuba the golden rush of the 21st century,” said Dan Snow, owner of Cuba Travel USA, an agency in Austin, Texas.
Mr. Snow said he has taken almost 20,000 Americans to Cuba illegally since 1977. He estimates to have sneaked about 1,500 Americans onto the island last year alone.
While no American airlines fly to Cuba currently, spokesmen for major U.S. airlines said yesterday that they always are researching new markets.
But Justin McNaull, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said if travel to Cuba becomes legal and there’s demand for it, the airlines will add flights.
“When there’s sufficient demand to go somewhere, the travel players step in to fill the need,” he said.
Sunny Reynolds, owner of Biotrek Adventure Travel in Warrenton, Va., leads adventure tours to Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, Morocco and Tanzania. But last year she went to Cuba for four days and wants to return.
“They get a great deal of European tourists, and the hotels that I stayed in were absolutely gorgeous,” she said. “You’d hardly know you weren’t in the U.S.”
But she recognized the dangers of being in a country illegally.
“Until it’s formally opened, I myself as a tour company would not take that kind of a risk by taking people there,” she said. “Like if somebody got sick it’s too dangerous.”
John Godfrey contributed to this report.