WASHINGTON — More Americans will be allowed to travel to Cuba, likely from Tampa International Airport, under changes announced Friday by the Obama administration.
The White House said it was easing restrictions to enhance the "free flow of information" and promote the independence of the Cuban people from communist rule.
The change affects religious and cultural groups and college students. People will also be able to send more money to the island. But a ban on general tourism travel remains.
Up to now, people intending to fly from the United States to Cuba had to do so out of Miami, Los Angeles or New York City.
The new travel policy opens the way for any United States airport with adequate customs and immigration capability to apply to provide the service.
Tampa International Airport appears to fit the qualifications, having the customs and immigration personnel and infrastructure the government will require.
"I couldn't be happier," said Steve Michelini, managing director of the World Trade Center of Tampa Bay, a group that seeks to foster better relations between countries for trade and development. "We've been working on this for so long."
Michelini said his group has been in contact with a potential charter company to supply flights to Cuba, and he believes it could have flights available within 60 days.
In a news release Friday, TIA officials said they were eager for the chance to begin the flights.
"This is great news from an international air service development standpoint," said Joe Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport. "We will begin meeting with air charter companies and working with the federal authorities to make sure we meet all requirements for these Cuba flights."
Al Austin, chairman of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, said the flights would "open up economic development opportunities for the entire community."
And board member Steve Burton said the airport had been exploring the prospect before. "I can't imagine we won't move quickly on it. … I see Cuba as a big opportunity for our area," he said.
Others were not so pleased.
Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, said it was "unthinkable that the administration would enable the enrichment of a Cuban regime that routinely violates the basic human rights and dignity of its people."
But U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, predicted it would boost business and ease the hardship on families who have to pay extra to travel to Miami. She has lobbied in particular to allow direct flights out of TIA since not long after she was elected to Congress.
The Tampa Bay region has the fifth highest concentration of Cuban-Americans of any region nationally, she said. Given that, plus the presence of the University of South Florida and University of Tampa, "We will be at the forefront of the new educational exchanges," she said.
The changes will allow religious organizations to sponsor travel under a general license as well as accredited colleges and will expand access to journalists.
The administration also will restore the broader "people-to-people'' category of travel, which allows "purposeful'' visits to increase contacts between U.S. and Cuban citizens.
Around the Tampa Bay region, even some hard-liners who have fought any easing of relations between the United States and Cuba were positive.
Ralph Fernandez, a lawyer and longtime opponent of lifting the trade embargo with Cuba, said he had a hard time arguing with the change. A native of Cuba, he said the easing of restrictions should help the local economy. What's more, he said, it is not easy to find anyone, even among the older generation of exiles, who objects to the modest changes.
"The passage of time has eroded, I think, the will of resistance among many of the people,'' he said.
Obama in 2009 removed restrictions for Cubans living in the United States who want to visit family. That was not changed Friday, though access to more airports could make travel more convenient for Cuban-Americans.
For 13 years, Renee Kincaid has led a group of Tampa area Methodists to their sister churches in Cuba to offer help. It has, for years, been a minor ordeal of red tape, expense and aggravation, and the new travel policy was welcome news, she said.
"We would not have the effort, the expense,'' said Kincaid, a native of Havana who emigrated when she was 28 years old. "It would save us time and money and effort."