By Mary Forgione
Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger
7:30 AM PST, February 7, 2013
Cuba Travel Services, headquartered in Long Beach, is ending its once-a-week charter service from Los Angeles to Havana partly because of U.S. government delays in processing applications for tour operators who take visitors to the island republic.
The last flight left Los Angeles on Tuesday and returned from Havana on Wednesday.
The company began the charter service in 2000. It blamed the recent action on a projected 40% drop in passengers from Los Angeles International Airport to Cuba this year.
"Some clients haven't had licenses renewed and others are waiting for new ones," general manager Michael Zuccato said on Wednesday of the tour operators he works with.
The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees licenses for Cuba-bound tour operators and organizations on what are called educational and "people-to-people" trips. Two years ago President Obama eased rules for these tours, but in May restrictions tightened after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained about "rampant abuses" and frivolous itineraries among operators.
Some tour operators were forced to cancel or delay trips before the logjam lifted in September.
The agency says it is "consistently" processing people-to-people applications and has issued more than 200 to individuals and operators since 2011.
"Processing any license application, regardless of its eventual disposition, can require significant processing time due to a variety of factors," John Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said Wednesday.
"Our goal is to process all Cuba travel applications in a timely and fair manner."
Cuba Travel continues to charter 10 flights weekly from Miami to Cuba because of the high number of passengers going to visit family. But family members account for only about half of the Los Angeles market, Zuccato said, with the rest coming from organized tours.
Zuccato said the company hadn't ruled out returning to the L.A. market or finding another West Coast city for its charter service.
"It's a great market," he said. "But we're going to wait until things change with the way licences are issued."firstname.lastname@example.org
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