HAVANA — Cubans have become accustomed to foreign tourists in recent years, but the procession of vintage Chevrolets and cute Cuban coco-taxis ferried an unusual group along the Malecón seafront last weekend.
Three dozen US travel executives, the first American travel delegation in 40 years, hit the streets of Havana Sunday. The group was on an unprecedented mission: to explore the potential of the Cuban tourist market, but also to thumb their nose at the US government's travel restrictions to the communist island.
Coming as it did just days after President Bush's announcement of a tightening of loopholes in the travel ban, the group's one-day foray stands as a stark reminder that most Americans favor having the right to travel wherever they choose - including to the Caribbean dictatorship.
"This is a historic moment," says one trip organizer, Kirby Jones, of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm on US-Cuba relations. "We all want to see the travel ban to Cuba lifted. It is no longer a question of if; it is only a question of when."
Yet while that remains broadly true, experts in US-Cuba relations say the "when" isn't likely to be as soon as the protravel camp once hoped.
A major reason: A particularly harsh crackdown by Cuban President Fidel Castro on 75 prodemocracy dissidents earlier this year has taken some of the wind out of the sails of those who favor of normalized relations with Cuba. With even Democratic presidential hopefuls saying now is not the time to lift the restrictions, prospects for an easing in the next 12 months seem dim.
Currently, US citizens are banned under the Trading With the Enemies Act from spending more than $300 on a visit to Cuba without a special waiver from the US Treasury Department. The travel operators were able to visit Cuba legally because of a loophole in the ban that allows trips that are hosted and don't involve spending money.
In announcing his Oct. 10 tightening on Cuba travel, Bush said tourist dollars spent in Cuba simply line the pockets of a dictatorial regime. Observers say the new travel restrictions are likely to fall disproportionately on academics and other Americans already hard hit by stricter controls imposed in March that eliminated other exemptions.
Cuba is still subject to a 1962 US trade embargo, but despite the restrictions and fines imposed on some who ignore the law, about 180,000 US citizens visited Cuba last year.
According to Cuban foreign ministry data, 100,000 were Cuban-Americans and more than 30,000 were illegal tourists who arrived via third countries including Canada, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas.
Michael Zuccato, president of the Association of Travel Related Industry Professionals (ATRIP) says there's a huge pent-up demand for travel to Cuba.
"You could see up to 2.8 million [US] tourists a year," he says. "We are building a coalition to provide a voice to all those who want to visit this beautiful island."
Major US airlines, cruise-ship operators, travel agents, and their Cuban counterparts were represented at a Cuba travel conference in Cancún, Mexico, which preceded the Cuba visit.
Mr. Jones says travel can be a useful tool in lobbying for policy change and engagement with the communist-ruled island. He cites public-opinion polls showing most Americans want the freedom to travel to Cuba and notes that the US House of Representatives recently passed an amendment that seeks to ease travel restrictions here.
But even US-Cuba experts who agree with that point of view - and who say the quickest route to felling Mr. Castro would be a complete end to the US trade embargo - caution that the travel ban is unlikely to be lifted before the 2004 presidential elections.
"Since Castro's crackdown, the number of people who want to take [Bush] on over this has fallen," says Mark Falcoff, a US-Cuba expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "You hear more [members of Congress] saying that it's not the right time."
The reality is electoral math, and Florida's 25 electoral votes. With the state's large Cuban-American population, many of whom oppose any normalization of relations with Cuba until Castro is gone, current US policy is unlikely to change before inauguration day 2005, at the earliest.
"All of what we're seeing is related to Florida politics; I have no doubt about it," Mr. Falcoff says. "That's the reality for the short term."
• Howard LaFranchi contributed to this report from Washington.