Cuba is bracing for an influx of American visitors now that the Obama administration has done away with the last meaningful restrictions on U.S. travel. The changes, announced Tuesday ahead of President Obama's trip to Havana this weekend, will make it easier, quicker and cheaper for Americans to visit essentially on their own terms. A formal ban on U.S. tourism remains in place, but "they've essentially deregulated travel," says Robert Muse, a Washington attorney who specializes in U.S. laws regarding Cuba. "This is a standing invitation to travel to Cuba for U.S. tourists."
Some questions and answers about the new rules:
Q: Who can go?
A: Any American can now travel to Cuba under 12 categories of legally permissible purposes, which include professional, religious and journalistic activities. Of the 12, the one that will see the biggest boost is "educational activities." In the past, Americans using that option had to travel on organized, group tours through a company licensed by the U.S. Those tours were costly and allowed visitors less flexibility. The new rules allow Americans to plan their own itineraries of "people-to-people" educational exchanges, and they don't need to seek U.S. permission in advance.
Q: What are the rules?
A: Americans will be required to have a full-time schedule of authorized activities "intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence." Travel will be permitted for almost any cultural activity, including musical performances, art appreciation and baseball games. "There's no shortage of opportunities for Americans to build that type of meaningful schedule or people-to-people engagement while they go to Cuba," said Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.
Visitors must keep records for five years about what they did in Cuba, but won't have to submit them unless asked. The Treasury Department said it would monitor compliance but offered no details. It appears the record-keeping "will be on the honor system," said Andy Fernandez, leader of Holland & Knight's Cuba Action Team.
Technically, at least, Americans still aren't allowed to go to Cuba to lounge on the beach. "Travel for tourist activity remains prohibited by statue," said Andrea Gacki, acting deputy director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Q: Isn't Cuba hard to get to?
A: It is, but it's about to get much easier. In the past, chartered flights and routes through third countries were the only way for Americans to get to Cuba. But under previous changes Obama made, the U.S. opened the door to restoring commercial air traffic. The first of up to 110 commercial flights a day are expected to start later this year.
Eventually, many Americans may also come by boat. Some U.S. lines have received U.S. approval but are awaiting the green light from the Cuban government.
Q: Where can you stay?
A: A surge in individual leisure travel could be limited by the near-impossibility of finding lodging in state hotel or private homes without months of searching. Most hotels are at or close to 100 percent capacity and the best-quality rental homes and apartments are already booked through the fall. Several hundred thousand Cuban-Americans visit the country each year, but generally stay with family or in privately rented homes.
One new option is AirBnB. It now allows you to search Cuba for private homes, known as "casas particulares," and pay through your credit card from the U.S.
Contributing: Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune