- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee is pressing the Obama administration to enforce U.S. laws limiting tourist trips to Cuba, after discovering that a Louisiana travel agency is promoting trips to the communist-ruled island.

“Not only is the Obama administration easing sanctions on the Cuban regime, but it would appear they are also ignoring the regulations in place,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, said this week.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, said that both public and private organizations are misrepresenting recent changes to Cuban sanctions by the White House.

She called on the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency in charge of economic sanctions, to “strictly enforce U.S. regulations on travel to Cuba and duly impose the corresponding penalties.”

The only forms of travel to Cuba permitted under current travel sanctions are cultural, religious or educational visits. Relatives of Cuban citizens are also allowed to travel there.

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen also complained that Washington’s diplomatic mission in Havana, called the U.S. Interests Section, is encouraging tourism to the island through a photo contest on its Facebook page.

The contest, called “Memories of Summer,” allows contestants to submit three photos to the Interests Section, which are then displayed on its Facebook page. Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said that the contest “essentially promotes tourism to the island.”

The contest, open to all Cuban residents, has 95 submissions placed on the Facebook page and includes many photographs of beaches and other tourist attractions.

Ms. Ros-Lehtinen warned the Treasury Department that lax enforcement of the sanctions has led to efforts by travel agencies to “circumvent U.S. law by promoting tourist travel to Cuba.”

She pointed to an article written by a travel agent in the Monroe, La., News-Star, which called for tourists to visit Cuba.

“Travel to Cuba is no longer limited to humanitarian or government sanctioned travel groups,” wrote Dianne Newcomer, travel consultant with the Monroe Travel Service on Sunday.

“The first wave of pure tourists from America will hit the friendly skies Aug. 11.”

Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said that the article makes “an egregious misrepresentation of the current guidelines regulating travel to Cuba and is indicative of potential schemes by other travel agencies to encourage the participation of U.S. citizens in illegal tourist tours of Cuba.”

The Treasury Department this month granted two travel agencies, Abercrombie & Kent and Cuba Insight, licenses to conduct “people-to-people” cultural tours to Cuba. Both companies, registered as non-profit corporations, have created multiple tour packages for prospective visitors.

The regulation changes that President Obama announced in January allow travelers to visit Cuba directly from the United States for religious, cultural and educational trips. The law previously restricted travel to Americans with Cuban relatives.

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