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Obama Eases Some US Travel Restrictions to Cuba

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The island of Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, but it has been 54 years since most U.S. citizens could legally travel there. Yesterday, however, President Obama announced that in light of Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s agreement to release two Cuban-detained Americans (one an intelligence operative) in exchange for three Cubans jailed in America, the U.S. plans to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, to soon re-open the U.S. embassy in Havana that has been closed since 1961, and to ease certain travel restrictions.

Thanks to a new warmth in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relation, Cuba could soon be far more open to American travelers. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Thanks to new warmth in diplomatic relations, Cuba could soon be far more open to American travelers. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Obama’s announcement doesn’t mean we can all suddenly storm the shores of Cuba with our luggage in tow—the ban on U.S. tourism is still in place until Congress decides otherwise—but it does give hope to airlines, hotels and cruise lines who would love to accommodate a flood of American travelers, where coral reefs are healthy, the water is crystal clear, and most cars date to the 1950s.

Since 2009, Obama has been slowly easing relations and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, making it possible for roughly 100,000 Americans in 12 different “people-to-people” categories—including freelance journalists, those with Cuban family members, or participants in humanitarian and academic projects—to visit the country each year. These new policy changes create significant economic ties between the two countries, allowing American banks to open accounts with Cuban ones, and letting currently-approved American travelers use credit and debit cards, as well as bring home about $400 worth of goods, including Cuban rum and cigars.

Cuba
Cuba’s Vinales Valley is lush, gorgeous and green – sure would be nice to visit. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

At present, Americans traveling to Cuba most commonly arrange their travel through tour companies like National Geographic Expeditions, Tauck and In Touch With Cuba, or via agencies with U.S. government authorization (e.g., Insight Cuba and Island Travel & Tours) that are equipped to provide them with the proper licensing and flight booking. There are direct flights to Havana (HAV) from Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas on a handful of carriers that include Air Canada, Cubana, Copa and LAN, as well as from Ft. Lauderdale on JetBlue, from Miami and Tampa on American, and from Los Angeles on United, but most of these airlines’ websites don’t actually list their HAV itineraries.

According to the website for Miami-based (and U.S.-to-Cuba-approved) travel agency Marazul, airports in New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Key West, and Orlando have been approved for flights to and from Cuba, but for the time being, no flights have been scheduled from these cities.

Ah, the white-sand beaches and turquoise water of Cuba's Varadero Beach. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
The white-sand beaches and turquoise water of Cuba’s Varadero Beach. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

A handful of international travel-industry companies already operate in Cuba, such as Spanish hotel chains Meliá, Iberostar, Barceló and NH Hotel Group, and several cruise lines provide authorized Americans the opportunity to visit Cuba from foreign points of origin, but many more are chomping at the bit to jump into a potentially wide open travel market between America and Cuba. In particular, Hilton and Marriott are open to future opportunities on the island.

Several members of Congress remain opposed to lifting the embargo entirely, but in January 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry plans to travel to Cuba to continue the new dialogue. Who knows? Perhaps the rest of America can soon follow.

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