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Tourism Industry Gears Up For Lifting Of Cuban Travel Ban

Obama says normalizing ties with Cuba will eventually mean relaxing rules on travel to Cuba. It may take some time for the new rules to take effect but travel agents are already getting phone calls.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A question some Americans are asking this week - when can we vacation in Cuba? President Obama did say normalizing U.S. diplomatic relations with the island will eventually mean relaxing strict rules on travel. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports that the tourism industry is already gearing up.

YULI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Wednesday morning kicked off what's been a busy week for Bob Guild.

BOB GUILD: We've been inundated with calls and emails.

NOGUCHI: Guild is vice president of Marazul Charters, which specializes in Cuban travel.

GUILD: We were actually set up by Cuban-Americans to reunite Cuban-Americans from this country with their relatives in Cuba in 1979.

NOGUCHI: Currently, traveling to Cuba legally is a bureaucratic affair. The State Department's website still warns of a repressive authoritarian state that uses surveillance and has a poor human rights record. Americans must apply for 1 of 12 licenses to travel there, which Guild says requires lawyers and time.

GUILD: Everyone has needed to get a license, wait several months, get the license, and now they will not have to do that anymore.

NOGUCHI: Congress must act to lift the ban outright. But in the meantime, the administration plans to relax travel restrictions by simplifying the licensing process. But even with looser legal restrictions, in the short term, more pragmatic concerns will remain. For example, no U.S. carriers fly there, so direct travel requires a chartered plane. Health care must be arranged since Cuba's system doesn't accept U.S. insurance. And U.S. citizens traveling in Cuba haven't been allowed to use credit cards or ATMs.

GUILD: People are very uncomfortable with it, bringing money belts and traveling down with cash that you would not ordinarily take with you.

NOGUCHI: But they did. Around a half million U.S. citizens traveled legally to Cuba last year. But an untold number more travel there illegally, flying from Mexico or Canada, which do not have a Cuban embargo. Joe Diaz is founder of AFAR, a magazine focused on adventure and cultural travel. He says the fact that Cuba has been so closed off despite being only 90 miles from the U.S. adds to the place's intrigue for some adventurers.

JOE DIAZ: Everything there is coming from a different era. And there's a real romance and allure to traveling there.

NOGUCHI: And now he expects Cuban travel will rapidly go mainstream.

DIAZ: This is going to impact tour operators, luxury hotels. The cruise lines are probably going to start really making investments and moves into the country.

NOGUCHI: Marazul Charters's Bob Guild has traveled to Cuba more than 40 times. He says it's still a developing nation. It's poor, and infrastructure is old, but it is also showing signs of modernization, perhaps more than many Americans realize.

GUILD: I don't think of is it as a place frozen in time.

NOGUCHI: Cuba does business with other countries, and Cuba's tourism business already attracts 3 million visitors a year.

GUILD: You find all these small businesses that have been opened up in the last couple of years, private restaurants where the food has gotten just better and better, hotels which are among the finest hotels anywhere in Latin America.

NOGUCHI: Guild says Cubans and Cuba lovers worry that an eventual influx of Americans would pave the way for tourism and commerce in its delicate nature preserves or along the historic old Havana seaside esplanade.

GUILD: I know a lot of people who are concerned they don't want to see a McDonald's on The Malecon in Cuba.

NOGUCHI: But for now, the reality is the embargo hasn't yet lifted. Investments haven't been made, so such fears are still at least a few years away. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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