BY LAURA FIGUEROA | Miami Herald
For dozens of Florida-based travel agencies that book flights to Cuba, the future of their livelihood is, well, up in the air.
On Monday, a coalition of 16 Miami-based travel agencies specializing in trips to Cuba plan to file a lawsuit against the state, hoping that a judge will halt a recently approved law aimed at increasing state regulation of their trade.
They say the measure, which goes into effect Tuesday, will drive up operating costs and force many to shut down if they can’t muster the $250,000 bonds mandated by the bill.
The measure, sponsored by state Rep. David Rivera as a homeland-security issue, was drafted to apply to all Florida-based vendors selling trips to countries on the U.S. State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism—which includes Cuba.
‘‘It is unfortunate that certain state of Florida legislators have decided to waste taxpayer funds to further their own goal of preventing and hindering Cuban-Americans who desire to visit their families in Cuba,’’ said Steven Weinger, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit against the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The travel agents have until Tuesday to register their companies with the state, pay $2,500 in fees and find bond companies willing to front the thousands of dollars required by the law, which the Legislature passed in May and Gov. Charlie Crist signed last week.
‘‘There is just so much confusion and chaos going around right now,’’ said Armando García, president of Miami-based Marazul Charters Travel, one of the companies filing suit.
Travel to Cuba has long been a divisive issue among Cuban-Americans, some of whom rely on travel to Cuba to visit families while others criticize the trips for the money it provides the Cuban government.
‘‘This family issue is going to be an albatross around their necks,’’ said Francisco Aruca, a Spanish-radio talk-show host and business associate at Marazul.
Many travel agency owners spent Friday rushing to ensure they could line up the bond money and filling out registration forms required by the state.
While the agencies are normally given two months to file paperwork, that time frame was whittled down to two business days. Department of Agriculture staffers were awaiting Crist’s signature on the bill before they could post the new requirements on the state’s website Thursday afternoon.
‘‘We didn’t have any more time than this. The bill was just signed into law,’’ said Terence McElroy, spokesman for the department. ``We realize that there are people out there who may be sick, people may be on vacation or out of town, and we’ll work with these people. It’s not our intention to harm these companies, no one is going to be hammered.’‘
The assurances were not enough for García and other travel agents, who say they are part of a state ``witch hunt.’‘
‘‘I held on to hope that the governor was going to veto this,’’ said Tessie Aral, president of Miami-based ABC Charters Travel. ‘I’m a Republican and I said to myself, `He’s got to veto this, he’s going to protect the interest of small businesses,’ but obviously somebody was putting the pressure on him.’‘
Earlier in the month, Aral tried to exert her own pressure on Crist: She was one of about 120 travel agents and Cuban-American families who flew to Tallahassee to protest the measure.
Aral added it’s too soon to estimate how much consumers can expect to absorb from the increase in fees.
There are seven charter companies and 12 travel agencies that handle flights to Cuba from the United States. Prices for trips to the island average from $500 to $600 before taxes, and some agents estimate the new law may up the cost of the trips by as much as 15 percent.
Rivera remains steadfast that the measure will aid those looking to book trips to Cuba, adding that he’d like to see some of the money collected from the registration fees to launch an investigation into alleged ‘‘price gouging’’ and ``excessive luggage fees.’‘
‘‘This is for the consumer protection of my constituents,’’ Rivera said. ``You are dealing with businesses dealing with terrorist countries that pose a risk to the United States, and they’re using our airports.’‘
Rivera and the Cuba-travel agencies have long had a cantankerous relationship. In 2006, he successfully sponsored legislation banning state funding of educational trips to Cuba. The measure, aimed at the pocketbooks of travel agencies arranging such trips, remains tied up in the courts.
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla contributed to this report.