Starting on Friday, travelers can go to Cuba to mount exhibitions, run
marathons and check out Havana’s growing restaurant scene — all without
having to apply for a license. But there’s one thing they can’t do:
commit acts of tourism.
Under the regulations announced by the U.S. Commerce and Treasury
departments Thursday, individuals who meet a dozen broad categories will
no longer have to apply for travel permits. Instead, the U.S. government
will be relying on a sort of honor system — where travelers will
self-certify that they are, indeed, qualified to travel.
In practice what it means is that more Americans than ever will start
trying to book trips to the communist island, which is closer to Miami
than Disney World, closer to New York than Los Angeles, and has been
virtually off-limits for half a century.
“This is the most exciting news we’ve heard ever since we started doing
this 15 years ago,” said Tom Popper, the president of Insight Cuba,
which takes U.S. visitors to the island on what are known as
people-to-people exchanges. “It’s a huge change and a positive
development for Cuba and a positive development for U.S. and U.S.
Under the rules, people can travel to Cuba for 12 broad reasons —
including athletic events, professional research, religious activities,
import-export businesses, humanitarian projects and exhibitions among
others. (See the full list here.)
What visitors still can’t do is drink Cuba Libres on Varadero beach or
engage in other forms of blatant tourism, which is banned by law — and
therefore out of reach of President Barack Obama’s decree powers.
Even so, White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest on Thursday called
on Congress to end that final obstacle.
“We certainly would welcome congressional action that would make it
possible for people to travel to Cuba solely for the purposes of
spending time on the beach,” he said during a White House press
conference. “Increased contact with the Cuban people and with the Cuban
government would only serve to put more pressure on the Castro regime to
abide by, protect and even advance the basic human rights that we hold
dear in this country.”
Not surprisingly, some are skeptical of the power of such bathing suit
Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy
Advocates in Washington, D.C, said increased U.S. tourism is bound to
fill government coffers. Many of the high-end hotels and restaurants
that tourists are drawn to are owned by the military. If the White House
had mandated that visitors could only frequent privately run hostels and
restaurants, the regulations might not be as problematic, he said.
These new rules “go directly against the president’s own agenda of
supporting the Cuban people,” he said. “Instead, they support the Cuban
Among the raft of changes announced Thursday, the U.S. government will
no longer set limits on how much travelers can spend in Cuba and will
allow the use of U.S. credit and debit cards.
“We’re closer to the day that U.S. travelers can swipe credit cards,
call home and check email, all of which will make visiting Cuba a more
relaxing experience,” Collin Laverty with Cuba Educational Travel said
in a statement, noting the administration is also encouraging
telecommunications and tech companies to cut deals with the island. “The
reforms are bound to fuel new employment in both the U.S. and Cuba, and
increase the exchange of ideas, information and culture.”
Despite the half-century travel ban on the island, U.S. tourists already
abound. Outside the famed Hotel Nacional, where the likes of Walt Disney
and Frank Sinatra once sipped cocktails, tour buses are packed with
Midwest tourists on their way to visit sugar plantations and art exhibits.
Some arrive as part of educational exchanges run by accredited
universities — others are there under informal people-to-people
exchanges. Under those visits, organizations licensed by the U.S.
Treasury Department can arrange tours that “result in meaningful
interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
To the layman such activity might seem like a vacation but to the U.S.
government the distinction is important. Asked how the government would
keep travelers from turning into tourists, officials suggested there
might be audits.
“They will have to keep records and documents,” a senior administration
official said. “It’s a violation of U.S. law for a traveler to disregard
the travel categories.”
Bob Older, the president of Creative Travel, runs people-to-people tours
that focus on Cuban cuisine. His groups visit the Havana culinary
institute and meet with the chefs of privately run restaurants.
Since Obama began talking about the relaxed travel restrictions in
December, Older said his phones had been ringing off the hook.
“The problem is that people think they can fly to Cuba on their own and
that’s not the case,” he said. “Yes we are getting a lot of phone calls
but the [announcement] has also caused a lot of confusion.”
Under the people-to-people exchanges, visitors must have an itinerary
and must be accompanied by a full-time guide, who works for the
sponsoring organization and is responsible for compliance. That will
make it prohibitive — although not impossible — for individuals or
families to organize their own trips.
The new rules kick open the doors for competition by letting any
organization lead such a tour, but it also means more travelers, said
Popper with Insight Cuba.
Since December, “millions and million more Americans know about the
possibility that they can travel to Cuba,” he said. “This is
unequivocally the most exciting time for Americans to go to Cuba
probably in the history off travel.”
MIAMI HERALD STAFF WRITER MIMI WHITEFIELD CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT
Source: U.S. eases Cuba travel but don’t book your Spring Break just yet
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