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Orbitz Launches 'Open Cuba' Site to Promote Travel Relations with US

By Kalyn Belsha in News on May 10, 2009 9:45PM

2009_05_10_opencuba.jpg Encouraged by President Obama’s lift last month on allowing family visits to Cuba, the Chicago-based Orbitz Worldwide is launching a campaign this week to reverse a law that prohibits most other U.S. citizens and legal residents from traveling to the island.

The website, called, became active Sunday and is a place where Orbitz visitors can petition Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress to repeal trade and travel restrictions on Cuba enacted during the Kennedy administration.

Orbitz’ president and CEO, Barney Harford, visited the White House in March and afterward decided to rally his company for the cause, hiring engineers to build the website in just two weeks. He has yet to ask for support from Cuban-American leaders, but says that is the next step.

According to the Tribune, the new site’s mission could be seen as manipulative -- Orbitz stands to gain millions should the ban be lifted and is offering those who lobby with Open Cuba a $100 travel voucher toward a Cuban vacation, redeemable only if the travel ban is lifted. At present, Orbitz, which is the second-largest online travel agency behind Expedia, cannot legally sell flights or tourism packages to Cuba.

“There's a risk that there may be backlash from narrow interest groups,” the 37-year-old Harford acknowledged to the Tribune. “But leaders lead. If we take a few bullets for this, that's part of being a leader.”

Although about two-thirds of Americans are in favor of lifting the travel ban -- according to an Orbitz poll -- many say it’s probably not in the cards for 2009. Obama has encouraged dialogue with the Raúl Castro-led, Communist country, but only to a certain degree. When he announced on April 13 that he would allow family members to visit Cuba and send money back home for the first time since the 1960s, many advocates said the new policy was still only baby steps toward a less restrictive policy. Fidel Castro himself responded in a column published the same day, which stated relations would not improve until the trade embargo on Cuba is lifted.

Another hurdle to promoting open travel to Cuba is that the country has few luxury hotels and accommodations. The few in existence fill up quickly during peak seasons with other nations’ tourists. Critics of the plan also say increased travel would mainly help the Cuban government, not the people struggling under it.