HAVANA — The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.
Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department's wrath.
"This is travel to Cuba for literally any American," said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.
But it won't all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.
So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down on what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.
Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.
"President Obama and the administration continuously say they don't want more tourism and that's not what they're trying to do. But that's exactly what's happening," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who was born in Fort Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.
"The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime," he said.
Insight Cuba is one of at least a dozen travel groups that have applied for a license to operate on the island since details of the change were issued in April. If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.
Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That would make travelers from the United States the second-biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.
The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a "full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction" with Cubans. But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time has been eliminated.
The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.