By Julie Johnsson | Chicago Tribune

Chicago-based travel site launches Web campaign seeking to overturn the U.S. government’s longtime travel restrictions to Cuba

Blending commerce with politics, Chicago’s Orbitz Worldwide is launching a campaign this week aimed at getting Congress to reverse a law that prohibits travel to Cuba for most U.S. citizens and green-card holders.

Starting Sunday through OpenCuba.org, Orbitz visitors can petition the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress to eliminate the decades-old trade and travel restrictions.

American airlines, cruise and tour operators are eager to launch travel to the Caribbean’s largest island, known for distinctive architecture, friendly people and stunning beaches.

President Barack Obama raised their hopes by encouraging a dialogue with Cuba’s communist regime and by removing restrictions on family visits by Cuban-Americans enacted by his predecessor.

But it is by no means assured that Congress will take the next step and repeal the Kennedy-era ban on travel, which remains a prickly political issue. The Obama administration isn’t pushing Congress to act on the measure, and opponents say it would be folly to do so without significant reforms by Cuba.

Borrowing a page from the Obama presidential campaign, Orbitz is trying to build grass-roots support for opening travel to the island by appealing directly to the 14 million monthly visitors to its Web site.

“We want to organize our customers and other interested parties to reach out to Obama and other government officials,” said Barney Harford, 37, the energetic president and chief executive of Orbitz.

A British national, Harford became enamored with Cuban culture and music during a 1997 trip to Havana and surrounding areas. “This is a magical country,” he said.

Orbitz created its Cuba campaign in Internet speed. Energized by a White House visit with the president in March, Harford decided to rally his company behind a social cause and selected Cuba. His engineers built the Web site in just two weeks.

In its haste, Orbitz hasn’t solicited support from Cuban-American leaders, although Harford says that is next on its agenda.

And it risks being seen as exploitative, since Orbitz is prohibited from selling travel to Cuba and stands to profit should the ban be lifted. Those who lobby via the new site will receive a $100 coupon toward a Cuba vacation. It would be redeemable if the travel ban is lifted and flights and tour packages can be sold legally by Orbitz, the second-largest online travel agency.

“There certainly will be some who position what Orbitz is doing as a crass example of corporate marketing at the expense of those in Cuba who are not free to travel, not free to have access to the Internet to voice their opinion,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which provides commercial information about Cuba.

“There’s a risk that there may be backlash from narrow interest groups,” Harford acknowledged. “But leaders lead. If we take a few bullets for this, that’s part of being a leader.”

Orbitz faces many hurdles, however. Given their heavy workload this session, congressional leaders may not get to legislation involving travel to Cuba.

Moreover, the Castro brothers have a history of undermining U.S. overtures with exquisitely timed acts of provocation, which could further weaken lawmakers’ resolve, observers noted. Although two-thirds of Americans support ending the travel ban, according to a poll commissioned by Orbitz, opponents are powerful and well-organized.

The Cuban American National Foundation, a prominent Miami-based organization intent on improving human rights in Cuba, is glad Obama lifted restrictions on family visits to the island by Cuban-Americans. But it opposes allowing other tourists into the country until the Castro regime grants Cuban citizens freedoms taken for granted elsewhere in the Americas.

“We believe this is not going to help the Cuban people, whatsoever,” said Dr. Francisco “Pepe” Hernandez, foundation president. “It’s only going to help the Cuban government.”

Still, observers think it is only a matter of time before travel is fully opened between the two countries.

“This is the year 2009,” said Delvis Fernandez Levy, president of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, who supports easing trade and travel bans. “It’s time to start a new era.”

But even if the ban is abolished, Cuba is likely to constrict travel for the near term, experts said. Cuba’s leadership is likely to restrict travel visas in the hope of thwarting visitors who might foment discontent.

Another major challenge for Cuba is that it has few hotels with luxurious accommodations, and those fill up during peak seasons with tourists from other parts of the world.

“Yes, you can put people on the planes, but what’s going to happen when they get there?” asked Kavulich. “There’s going to be a massive distance between expectations and reality. Unfortunately, Cuba’s going to be harmed because of that.”

Waiting in the wings for Cuba to open up are companies such as United Airlines, which holds far more international travel rights to the island nation than any other American carrier. It inherited those rights when it purchased Pan Am’s Latin American routes in the early 1990s.

If the ban is lifted, United could fly, or sell, 31 routes that it controls between the U.S. and Cuba, including the potentially lucrative New York-Havana and Miami-Havana routes, according to the Department of Transportation.

Chicago-based United won’t disclose its plans for serving the island.

“Right now, we are monitoring the dialogue,” said spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines holds rights to five routes between the two countries; Houston’s Continental owns rights to two routes.