(USA TODAY) -- When Mary Ann Miller saw images of Beyonce and Jay-Z strolling through the streets of Havana, the Tempe, Ariz., burst out in excitement.
"I was at one of the restaurants they were at!" Miller said. "I was there!"
The power couple's trip to Cuba stunned many Americans who have spent the past five decades assuming that travel to the Communist island was strictly off limits. But Beyonce and Jay-Z were far from the first Americans to puff cigars and stroll through the streets of Havana. They're just the most famous.
George W. Bush severely restricted travel to Cuba during his presidency, but President Obama re-opened the doors. Now, professors and students can go frequently on educational visas. Visas are also available for people going on religious trips and to visit relatives on the island.
But the visa category that has drawn the most criticism is the "people-to-people" visa that was shut down by Bush and reopened by Obama.
At the time the administration explained that it was designed to increase personal relationships with people in Cuba to give Cubans a better understanding of the outside world and help them fight for independence from an oppressive Cuban regime.
But Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami, said this week that the program "skirts the law" by providing propaganda and hard currency for the Communist regime, while giving Americans a nearly clear avenue for tourism.
"It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed," Diaz-Balart said about the trip by Beyonce and Jay-Z. "It amounts to tourism."
Any people-to-people visa issued must meet certain requirements established by the U.S. Department of Treasury. They include:
• Each traveler must have a "full-time schedule of educational" activities that include interactions with Cubans.
• "The exchanges must also advance purposeful travel by enhancing contact with the Cuban people and/or supporting civil society in Cuba, and/or the exchanges must promote independence from Cuban authorities."
• They cannot include "transactions related to activities that are primarily tourist-oriented."
When the Tempe chamber announced it was coordinating trips to Cuba, Miller -- who is the chamber's president and CEO --said her phone and e-mail inbox were flooded with requests. But given the tight Treasury requirements, she had to send many people away who were looking for pure tourists activities.
"I had several people who would call up and the questions were, 'How far off the itinerary can we veer? Can we go down there and fish?'" she said. "The answer was always, 'No.'"
Tracey Osborne, president of the Overland Park (Kan.) Chamber of Commerce, led a similar trip to Cuba in 2012 and said they definitely maintain a full schedule of educational activities.
"Unless you're sick, you're expected to be with the group," she said.
Osborne said there were many opportunities to interact with Cubans during their daily tours. While visiting a school, she said some kids asked that the Americans sing their national anthem, and then the children sang the Cuban national anthem back to them.
But Osborne conceded it was difficult to find time to interact with regular Cubans.
"Maybe you'd have 15 minutes while the bus was stopped and we're getting something to drink on the side of the road," she said.
The number of U.S. visitors to Cuba has shot up in the last two years, topping 500,000 in 2011, the Cuban Tourism Ministry says. Most were Cuban Americans visiting relatives, but about 90,000 were other Americans mostly traveling on licensed visits, Cuban officials say.
Jesse Horst, a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, took his third trip to Cuba in January to continue working on his thesis about the history of slums in Cuba and other Latin American countries. He went on an educational visa, not the "people to people" visa.
"They want to know about the U.S., about popular culture," said Horst, 28. "They're also concerned about the types of difficulties there are living in the U.S."
Another visa category is the cultural exchange trips, available to artists and athletes.
The Westfield State University baseball team, a small, Division III squad from Massachusetts, went in March to play against Cuban teams. They faced off against the Havana Industriales - the Cuban equivalent of the New York Yankees - and lost both games.
"They're a little dramatic," Matt Kelly, 23, a graduate assistant coach, said of the Cuban team. "They make a good play, they're going to let you know. They definitely have a flair."
The hardest distinction to draw is when something becomes a purely tourist activity. Advertisements for trips to Cuba on people-to-people visas often list salsa-dancing lessons, rum tastings and tours of cigar factories. And with most nights left open on their official itineraries, visitors are able to take in everything Havana has to offer.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., says the visas are being used wrongly and it is bolstering an awful regime that is repressing its people.
"As more human rights activists engage in hunger strikes, I don't think they will see any evidence of how this scam endeavor will help them become independent of the regime," she said.
Miller couldn't believe that the Tropicana nightclub she knew from watching "I Love Lucy" was still up and running in Havana.
"I always thought that the silly outfits she would wear with great big things on her head were a joke," Miller said. "But the women actually came out with chandeliers on their head. I was like 'Oh my God!'"
Despite the questions surrounding the program, Osborne said she feels that the trip was helpful not just to her group, but to the Cubans who got to spend at least a little time interacting with and learning about Americans.
"I don't know that we changed the world," she said. "But there are certainly 30-some people from Overland Park, Kansas, who learned a lot, and hopefully we met a few people and they learned about America as well."
By Alan Gomez