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Flights from Tampa to Cuba begin, but not for tourists

When the first charter flight from Tampa International Airport to Havana in nearly 50 years takes off today, the same kinds of travelers allowed to visit Cuba for years will fill most of the seats: people on business, humanitarian or religious trips. And lots of Cuban-Americans.

But no tourists.

Although President Barack Obama has relaxed travel restrictions to the island, you still can't go simply to have fun. You can go, however, on what are called "people-to-people" exchanges.

The first groups of Americans to visit Cuba under the relaxed rules went to orphanages, medical facilities, a home for blind children, art museums, music concerts. They toured Old Havana and were welcomed with hugs and handshakes.

Three travelers booked on today's flight will fly as a "people-to-people" group: Tampa mediator Steve Rupert and two companions.

Rupert secured a license from the Treasury Department authorizing him to sponsor the exchanges the Obama administration approved in January. The government has issued fewer than 60 such licenses.

The decision to relax restrictions allows a wider variety of Americans to visit Cuba for the first times in 71/2 years. Rupert plans to develop tour programs for licensed travel agencies in Tampa Bay to sell.

That could be a challenge. For now, some companies selling travel packages or arranging the flights are reluctant to book "people-to-people" travelers from Tampa.

"In the past, it's been tricky … to follow all the (Treasury) rules," said Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters in Miami, one of three charter companies approved by the U.S. and Cuban government to fly to the island nation from Tampa.

One of the first travel companies to offer Cuba trips under the new rules had to suspend 13 sold-out trips in July after apparently running afoul government guidelines. Luxury travel firm Abercrombie & Kent advertised tours that included salsa dancing and mojitos.

People-to-people travel began under President Bill Clinton to let non-Cuban-American citizens take part in "meaningful interaction" with Cubans "in support of their desire to freely determine their country's future." Strictly tourist visits are illegal.

The Bush administration shut down the people-to-people program in 2003 amid criticism the trips were barely disguised tourism. Obama reinstated the program Jan. 28.

One of the largest operators of the exchange trips, Insight Cuba of New Rochelle, N.Y., tried to work out a charter later this month from Tampa International but it didn't work out, said marketing director Savina Perez.

Insight Cuba director Tom Popper prefers sending groups out of Miami International. Charter operators make 10 flights or more daily to Cuba from the airport. If a plane has a mechanical problem, passengers can take another flight that day. Tampa is starting with two weekly flights, with a third scheduled to start Nov. 6.

Contact Steve Huettel at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Flights from Tampa to Cuba begin, but not for tourists 09/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 9:57pm]
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