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Tourism ban withers as commercial flights to Cuba resume

Cuba was once considered Florida's playground, offering fun and sun on a scenic island a short flight away.

Then came the Cuban Revolution, communism and a U.S. travel and trade embargo.

But the embargo has been whittled away through executive orders issued by President Obama to restore relations with Cuba after five decades of separation between the two countries.

These efforts have made the travel ban nearly impossible to enforce.

"It's no secret the Obama administration has been trying to circumvent the law as regards to Cuba policy," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of U.S.-Cuba Democracy, a Washington lobbying group that opposes engaging with the Castro government. "This is no different."

Havana is connected to the U.S. via charter services, including seven weekly flights out of Tampa International Airport.

The U.S. government has in recent weeks approved commercial flights to nine Cuban cities including Varadero and Holguin, two popular resort cities. They start this fall. Tampa residents can connect to those via Miami.

Bigger news came Thursday, when the Department of Transportation tentatively approved daily commercial flights to Havana by Southwest Airlines. These flights could start as early as this fall.

Only one thing stands in the way of Americans lounging on the sands of the island nation once again: Travel is restricted to one of 12 specific reasons, including education and research. Beach combing is not one of them.

For years, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, required Americans to apply for licenses to travel to Cuba. Permitted educational trips on Cuban culture were allowed only as part of a certified tour group.

With the easing of restrictions, Americans need only obtain a general license to visit Cuba for any of the 12 reasons allowed and can take educational tours on their own.

Little prevents Americans from fibbing about fulfilling their obligations.

"The Obama administration is using tourism travel to provide an economic lifeline to the Castro brothers," U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born Miami Republican, said. "And the 'look the other way' attitude of the administration encourages purely tourist travel."

As restrictions loosened, the number of Americans going to Cuba has grown too rapidly for OFAC to properly monitor, said Doug Jacobson, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., whose practice involves nations under sanction of some kind.

"OFAC has limited resources and unless they receive information about a possible violation, they do not routinely audit," Jacobson said. "As a result, there have been few Cuba enforcement cases over the past years."

As of April, 94,000 Americans had traveled to Cuba during 2016 — an increase of 93 percent from the same time last year, according to the Cuban government. The numbers do not include Cuban-Americans visiting family.

Visits are expected to soar higher in the coming year when the commercial flights to Havana begin from Tampa and nine other U.S. cities. Cuba's capital city is expected to remain the most-visited destination for Americans.

With its beaches and resorts, Varadero, already a busy destination for international tourists, is also expected to be popular among American travelers.

But self-certified tours and a lack of oversight also make Varadero accessible for those interested strictly in tourism if they are willing to break a law that is seldom enforced.

"One action prevents them from doing anything they want to do in Cuba — their ability to control themselves and not post a selfie that the government can see," quipped John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. "Other than that, they're good."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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