Travel agents expecting high demand for Cuban travel

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NEWINGTON- With loosened travel restrictions to Cuba taking effect Friday, travel agencies in Connecticut are already seeing increased interest in the once "detached" nation.

"It just sounds very interesting." That's what 84-year-old Rita Routhier thinks about Cuba.

She lives by a simple motto you've probably heard before: "It's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."

With her motto in mind, the Newington, Connecticut resident took three international trips last year, and at the end of this month she's flying to Cuba for a nine-day visit.

"I'm just interested in seeing all the sights," said Routhier, who will travel alongside a friend as part of a 30-person group.

For Routhier, inspiration came from her aunt, who visited Cuba before Castro's regime.

"She said what a beautiful island it was, and I was very young and I thought, hmm, I'd love to go there when I grow up--and I've grown up," Routhier said while laughing.

Routhier booked her trip before the loosened restrictions, but the new policies now make travel to Cuba a reality for all Americans, and travel agent Valeri French expects major interest.

"Havana is a beautiful colonial city with all kinds of history and beautiful old buildings so that's of interest to people. The beaches are magnificent," said French.

French, the owner of French's Worldwide Travel in Newington, said travel to Cuba has actually been possible for years now, but only with tour groups possessing special licenses. With the new policy, travelers can qualify under a dozen broad categories of authorized travel, including to visit family, business trips, journalism, education, and sports.

"Oh I think it's wonderful, I think they should have done this a long time ago," said Routhier.

But French does offer a warning: "You still have to make sure you're booked with an authorized trip that has a license. So you do have to be careful that any trip that you're going on is a legal trip."

Cuba remains relatively uncharted territory for many Americans, but that doesn't worry Rita Routhier. "A few people have said to me, 'aren't you afraid to go over there?' And of course not--what are they going to do to an old lady?" she said, again laughing.

Americans still can't travel to Cuba purely for personal tourism because the embargo is still in place, but now it's certainly much easier to visit.

The Obama administration is also taking steps to allow U.S. banking in Cuba. Travelers can use their U.S. credit cards and debit cards in the country and can bring back $400 worth of goods, including $100 in alcohol and previously-banned tobacco products such as cigars.