8 senators unveil proposed legislation lifting restrictions on tourism to Cuba

Hearings on Cuba are scheduled for next week in both the House and Senate

WASHINGTON - In the first effort from Congress to end the embargo against Cuba since President Barack Obama started to lobby against it, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation Thursday that would allow U.S. citizens to vacation in Cuba.

Under Obama's new rules, tourism remains prohibited and only congressional action can lift the embargo. U.S. citizens are allowed to travel to Cuban only if they fit one of the 12 approved categories, which include educational and humanitarian trips.

If the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 passes, tourists would be able to just book their flights and hotels legally online.

"The exchange of ideas and values via people-to-people travel can have a far greater, positive impact than the decades-old failed policy of isolation," the bill proposal's summary says.

The eight senators -- half Republicans and half Democrats -- backing the lift of the tourism ban are Jeff Flake, of Arizona; Jerry Moran, of Kansas; Michael Enzi, of Wyoming; John Boozman, of Arkansas; Patrick Leahy, of Vermont; Richard Durbin, of Illinois; Tom Udall, of New Mexico and Sheldon Whitehouse, of Rhode Island.

"We have tried this current policy that we have prohibiting travel for about 50 years, and it hasn't worked, so it's time for something new," Flake said. "It's time to allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba."

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Rep. Mark Sanford and Democrat Rep. Jim McGovern plan to introduce a similar bill next week. The legislation would also allow tourism-related banking transactions.

"It makes no sense to have this prohibition," Leahy said.

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HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: Read the 2015 report on Cuba

OPPOSITION TO THE PROCESS

Those dreaming of walking the streets of Old Havana to enjoy the pastel-colored Spanish Colonial architecture and ride a 50s classic convertible near the sea-front wall, shouldn't pack their bags yet.

There is plenty of opposition in Capitol Hill. A Feb. 4,2009 attempt at similar legislation with the same name was buried. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner have been critical of the idea.

Rep. Ileana Rosh-Lehtinen has fiercely voiced her opposition every day since Castro and Obama announced they would move toward repairing the relationship Dec. 17. When Obama issued new rules to relax the embargo and delegations from both countries met for historic negotiations in Havana last week, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart was outraged.

The change in policy defies Sen. Marco Rubio and other Cuban-Americans who support the embargo and fear that U.S. tourism will strengthen the repressive Castro regime and hurt dissenters.

With a bit of mistrust, Fidel Castro approved. "El Che" Guevara's daughter said that if her father was alive, he would too approve of the talks. The sole mention of their names can still be explosive in Miami's Little Havana.

The Wednesday announcement of the lawmakers' plan to unveil the bill came hours after Cuban President Raul Castro mentioned his list of demands during a speech in front of Latin American heads of state attending a summit in San Jose, Costa Rica.

The younger Castro warned during his speech that there were "certain forces" that wanted to slow the process of re-establishing relations,as Rubio announced he was named chairman of a subcommittee that will be discussing the effects of the new policy in February.

PREPARING FOR CHANGE

Cruise line executives have been looking into the possibility for years. Outside of the political arena, most of the business sector seems convinced of an impending wave of U.S. tourism arriving to the island -- only 90 miles south of Key West.

Kayak, a U.S. travel search engine, recently added booking links for Cuba-related hotels and flights searches. Even a Chef is planning a culinary tour.

Mastercard plans to lift the ban on transactions in Cuba March 1. And American Express is preparing to do the same.

Airline executives from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue were preparing to add more flights to Cuba from Miami International Airport.

In Cuba, the unofficial tourist guides known as "Jineteros" expect good times. Like hustlers, they make their money from wrestling tips, selling counterfeit goods, drugs and sometimes from prostitution.

There is fear among some tourism industry experts, who are concerned that the current infrastructure won't be able to keep up. Old plumbing, air conditioners, washcloths, taxi cabs and Wi-Fi can be unreliable.

Despite the quality, hotel rates are not cheap and the rates of those that meet international standards may go up. Restored family-run colonial guest houses will remain the best options since they will benefit the island's private sector.

The Varadero beach resort, about 80 miles east of Havana, continues to be the island's high-end destination. But for those who want to reminisce of Havana's glamorous days and can afford a presidential suite with really old furniture for at least $1,080 a night,  The 1930 Hotel Nacional de Cuba remains the great pearl.

Local 10 News will be following the Congressional hearings on Cuba policy that are scheduled for next week.

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