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As President Obama removes most travel restrictions, Americans eager to visit Cuba

A poster featuring portraits of Cuba's President Raul Castro, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama that reads in Spanish "Welcome to Cuba" stands outside a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, March 17, 2016. Obama is scheduled to travel to the island on March 20, the first U.S. presidential trip to Havana in nearly 90 years. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

PHOENIX — President Obama will visit Cuba with his family in a high-profile push in order to normalize relations with the island.

The 2-day trip, which starts Monday, comes as the Obama administration removes nearly all travel restrictions for Americans.

Travel has been mostly limited to educational groups like the one Baltazar Hernandez joined when he visited Cuba recently.

Hernandez was among 18 Arizona State University students who got visas so they could travel to the island as part of their international political economy class.

“We talked a lot about our families our careers, our respective country political situation,” Hernandez said.

It’s exactly the kind of “people-to-people” exchange Obama wants to foster to promote civil society in Cuba.

“For them to be able to speak to me about my experiences in the United States, and for me to be able to get to speak with them, (it) was a very enlightening experience.” Hernandez said.

While Cuba’s aging infrastructure may not be ready, the Cuban people are excited.

“They are very eager to welcome and receive the influx of American tourists,” Hernandez said.

Americans who want to travel to Cuba individually, with friends or as a family, rather than with a group must sign an affidavit, save their travel records for five years and engage with the Cuban people during their visit rather than remain isolated at a resort.

“They still — and I am quoting — must have a ‘meaningful interaction with the Cuban people,'” Ronen Paladi, owner of Ya’lla Tours USA, said. “They can not go to the beach. They can not just be on their own. They must have a program to follow.”

Paladi’s travel agency is among the most experienced in organizing trips to Cuba. He said demand is steadily growing, but the island is not prepared for a crush of tourists.

“Right now, there are two or three hotels under construction which started years ago and are still not finished,” Paladi said. “So we have more American demand putting pressure on existing hotels. They have not hired new tour guides. They did not purchase new vehicles, vans or buses.”

Commercial flights to Cuba could begin as early as this fall. Major airlines including American, United, and Southwest have submitted applications with the federal government for permission to begin direct flights.

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