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US travel executives meet Castro in forbidden Cuba
( 2003-10-20 11:23) (Agencies)

Three dozen US travel industry executives met President Fidel Castro for more than two hours on Sunday at the end of a one-day visit to explore business opportunities on the communist-run Caribbean island.

"We are very appreciative of what you are doing," Castro told the group, referring to lobbying efforts in Washington to end US restrictions on travel to Cuba. The meeting was open to reporters.

Castro did not comment on the Bush administration's opposition to loosening travel restrictions for Americans who want to visit Cuba, and its campaign to crack down on illegal travel to the island.

The American group, whose industry stands to gain the most if a US ban on travel to Cuba is lifted, was welcomed to Cuba with a champagne breakfast to the strains of salsa music and a tour of the city's hotels.

The one-day visit, which included a stop at Havana's Revolution Square, a ride in vintage American convertibles from the 1950s and meetings with ruling Communist Party leaders, was part of the first US-Cuba travel conference held at the nearby Mexican resort of Cancun.

"It has simply been spectacular," said Matt Grayson, director of the National Tour Association, whose members send 1 million American tourists a year on Caribbean holidays.

Grayson said Cuba had everything Americans tourists were looking for after the September 11, 2001, attacks: It was close, it was safe, it had culture and history, and boasted colonial architecture, sunny beaches and diving.

The tour operators' visit came 10 days after US President George W. Bush announced a crackdown on unauthorized travel to Cuba under a Cold War-era trade embargo, as part of an attempt to speed up political change on the Caribbean island.

The US tourism industry believes there is a pent up demand for travel to Cuba and has joined lobbying efforts to abolish the four-decade-old trade embargo against Castro's leftist government.

Americans can only visit Cuba with special permits from the US Treasury Department under sanctions dating from 1962.

Once the hottest American playground in the Caribbean, Cuba is banking on the return of American tourism to increase its main source of hard currency and shore up a cash-strapped one-party state.

The executives visited Havana using a loophole in the trade embargo: They were fully hosted and did not spend a dime. The travel ban does not bar visits but prohibits US citizens from spending dollars in Cuba.

The US House of Representatives last month voted for a fourth year in a row to end the travel restrictions and the US Senate is expected to follow suit. Bush has vowed to veto any move to end the travel ban, saying US tourist dollars would prop up a repressive government in Cuba.

The Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP), recently formed to lobby for an end to the travel ban, said a majority of Americans wanted the freedom to travel wherever they wished.

"It's not a question of whether it will be lifted, only a question of when," ATRIP president Michael Zuccato told a news conference.

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