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Cuba people-to-people tours to begin Thursday

Liane and Tom Young got interested in Cuba through listening to the Buena Vista Social Club, the best selling Cuban album in history, and the allure of the island's famed cigars.

When the first Americans to participate in people-to-people exchanges with Cuba in 7½ years leave Miami on a Marazul charter Thursday afternoon, the central Virginia couple will be aboard.

They want to meet the people who go with the music and cigars, said Liane Young. “My husband and I think this is a fabulous opportunity to get to know the Cuban people,’’ she said earlier this week as she finished packing for a trip that will take the couple to Havana and Pinar del Rio, a prime tobacco-growing province.

Young, who is retired but working on a screen play, and her husband, a small-scale organic farmer, said the couple chose the eight-day trip because they wanted to see Cuba beyond Havana but didn’t want to tie up too much time in travel.

The Youngs are traveling with Insight Cuba, which arranged people-to-people exchanges from 2000 to 2003 before the Bush administration tightened travel to the island and stopped the trips as a way of shoring up the U.S. embargo.

But the Obama administration has not only allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island if they can get visas from Cuba but also announced guidelines in January allowing other Americans to visit Cuba if they engage in “purposeful travel’’ that reaches out to ordinary Cubans in an effort to support civil society and support the free flow of information.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department had approved licenses for 35 organizations to arrange trips to bring Americans and Cubans together. A number of them have scheduled their first trips this fall. But at least one, global travel provider Abercrombie & Kent, which had planned to piggyback on the license of a non-profit group, put its 13 planned trips on hold because of apparent conflict with rules issued by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control last month.

Critics of the people-to-people exchanges say they are merely disguised tourism that will permit more U.S. currency to flow to the Castro government.

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