TAMPA — Phones rang nonstop Monday at businesses authorized to book travel to Cuba as families rushed to take advantage of President Barack Obama's new policy that allows unlimited family visits to the island.
"I can't talk right now, I'm very, very busy," Armando Ramirez, president of Tampa Envios on Columbus Drive, said.
Even before Monday's announcement, Ramirez said his business shot up by 40 percent in the past month.
In March, the president signed legislation that rolled back restrictions imposed under the Bush administration that had limited travel to Cuba to once every three years. The new bill allowed Cuban-Americans to visit relatives once a year.
Obama's latest move allows Cuban-Americans to go to Cuba as much as they please to visit relatives and send them unlimited amounts of money.
"I'm just glad this thing is finally resolved," said Segundo Cancio, 56, who stopped Monday at Tampa Envios.
Cancio plans to take his 78-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, to Cuba.
"The one thing she's always talking about is going back," Cancio said. "She wants to see her sister. She's actually saying I want to go home. …I just feel relief that I (will be) able to get her back."
Agencies like Tampa Envios, which also ships packages to Cuba, expect business to boom.
Ramirez, who had closed a second office on Hillsborough Avenue because of plummeting sales, hopes to reopen it.
At Taino of Tampa, business increased 20 percent since March.
"A lot of people have sick children or relatives, and now they can go to see them," said Maria Padron, the owner.
Idania Remon, 37, of Tampa booked her flight to Cuba late last week anticipating the run on tickets.
Ramirez had warned her. "He said hurry up, and get in here. June tickets are going fast," said Remon, who has aging parents and five brothers in Cuba.
Remon flew to Cuba last year under the license of a church. The cost of the round-trip ticket and application fees totaled more than $800, she said. Now a direct flight out of Miami to Havana cost her $555.
Agents at Tampa Envios said some tickets are as low as $370. They expect the price to drop as the supply of airline flights increases to meet demand. Several airlines currently handle direct flights to Cuba out of Miami and New York, but agents expect the number to grow, as the changes affect about 1.5-million Cuban-Americans.
U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is pressing the Obama administration to permit charter flights to Cuba to fly from Tampa International Airport.
"The addition of Tampa International Airport as a departure point … would be one less burden these families have to face," she said.
Henry Mendoza, owner of Tampa's Agencia 12 y 23, said many families didn't qualify to travel under religious licenses and were forced to wait three years or travel illegally through a third country, like Mexico or the Bahamas.
Under the previous restrictions, it was an "everyday thing" for someone to call crying, hoping to travel legally to Cuba to see a sick parent, he said.
"They were denying people their most basic rights."
Times staff writer Victoria Bekiempis contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.