Cuban diplomats visited South Florida

Two officials from Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington visited the Miami area quietly Monday to meet with companies that handle travel between the island and the United States, according to travel industry members.

Such visits are uncommon because Cuban diplomats must obtain permission from the U.S. State Department before they can travel outside Washington, and they usually try to avoid South Florida due to security concerns.

Travel industry members said the two officials from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington held routine meetings in Miami Monday with many of the companies that offer travel services to the island, to discuss the state of the businesses.

The December holidays kick off Cuba’s high tourism season. Last year, 3 million people visited the island, including about 476,000 Cuban Americans and an estimated 98,000 other U.S. residents on so-called “people-to-people” trips.

Some of the companies at the meetings reported that the business is growing crowded because the Cuban and U.S. governments have approved new firms despite a drop in travelers, said the industry members, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly.

Havana reported a 2 percent drop in overall international arrivals in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2012.

The industry members said the meetings with the visiting Cuban officials also touched on the people-to-people trips, which they said had begun to fall off because of costs that can run up to $700 and $800 per day.

President Barack Obama approved the people-to-people trips in 2010 to promote “purposeful engagement” between Cubans and U.S. residents who are not Cuban Americans. The visits cannot legally include any tourist activities.

Most of the people-to-people visitors so far have been older, well-off Americans who want to learn about the island but are unlikely to make return trips, according to one of the travel industry members.

The member said the two Cuban visitors also asked about a new system put in place by the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington to expedite the issuance of the visas required of Cuban Americans for travel to the island.

The two diplomats left Miami Tuesday. The travel industry members declined to give their names.

Armando Bencomo and Llanio González, both diplomats with the Cuban mission in Washington, visited South Florida in July to brief travel companies and others on the changes in migration regulations adopted on the island on Jan. 14.

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