Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cuba travel law stirs debate

Cuba travel law stirs debate

Local travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba plan on filing a
lawsuit against a state measure aimed at increasing regulation of their
Posted on Sun, Jun. 29, 2008

For dozens of Florida-based travel agencies that book flights to Cuba,
the future of their livelihood is, well, up in the air.

On Monday, a coalition of 16 Miami-based travel agencies specializing in
trips to Cuba plan to file a lawsuit against the state, hoping that a
judge will halt a recently approved law aimed at increasing state
regulation of their trade.

They say the measure, which goes into effect Tuesday, will drive up
operating costs and force many to shut down if they can't muster the
$250,000 bonds mandated by the bill.

The measure, sponsored by state Rep. David Rivera as a homeland-security
issue, was drafted to apply to all Florida-based vendors selling trips
to countries on the U.S. State Department's list of nations that sponsor
terrorism -- which includes Cuba.

''It is unfortunate that certain state of Florida legislators have
decided to waste taxpayer funds to further their own goal of preventing
and hindering Cuban-Americans who desire to visit their families in
Cuba,'' said Steven Weinger, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit
against the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The travel agents have until Tuesday to register their companies with
the state, pay $2,500 in fees and find bond companies willing to front
the thousands of dollars required by the law, which the Legislature
passed in May and Gov. Charlie Crist signed last week.

''There is just so much confusion and chaos going around right now,''
said Armando García, president of Miami-based Marazul Charters Travel,
one of the companies filing suit.

Travel to Cuba has long been a divisive issue among Cuban-Americans,
some of whom rely on travel to Cuba to visit families while others
criticize the trips for the money it provides the Cuban government.

''This family issue is going to be an albatross around their necks,''
said Francisco Aruca, a Spanish-radio talk-show host and business
associate at Marazul.

Many travel agency owners spent Friday rushing to ensure they could line
up the bond money and filling out registration forms required by the state.

While the agencies are normally given two months to file paperwork, that
time frame was whittled down to two business days. Department of
Agriculture staffers were awaiting Crist's signature on the bill before
they could post the new requirements on the state's website Thursday

''We didn't have any more time than this. The bill was just signed into
law,'' said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the department. ``We realize
that there are people out there who may be sick, people may be on
vacation or out of town, and we'll work with these people. It's not our
intention to harm these companies, no one is going to be hammered.''

The assurances were not enough for García and other travel agents, who
say they are part of a state ``witch hunt.''

''I held on to hope that the governor was going to veto this,'' said
Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters Travel. 'I'm a
Republican and I said to myself, `He's got to veto this, he's going to
protect the interest of small businesses,' but obviously somebody was
putting the pressure on him.''

Earlier in the month, Aral tried to exert her own pressure on Crist: She
was one of about 120 travel agents and Cuban-American families who flew
to Tallahassee to protest the measure.

Aral added it's too soon to estimate how much consumers can expect to
absorb from the increase in fees.

There are seven charter companies and 12 travel agencies that handle
flights to Cuba from the United States. Prices for trips to the island
average from $500 to $600 before taxes, and some agents estimate the new
law may up the cost of the trips by as much as 15 percent.

Rivera remains steadfast that the measure will aid those looking to book
trips to Cuba, adding that he'd like to see some of the money collected
from the registration fees to launch an investigation into alleged
''price gouging'' and ``excessive luggage fees.''

''This is for the consumer protection of my constituents,'' Rivera said.
``You are dealing with businesses dealing with terrorist countries that
pose a risk to the United States, and they're using our airports.''

Rivera and the Cuba-travel agencies have long had a cantankerous
relationship. In 2006, he successfully sponsored legislation banning
state funding of educational trips to Cuba. The measure, aimed at the
pocketbooks of travel agencies arranging such trips, remains tied up in
the courts.

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this

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