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What you need to know about Trump's new Cuba travel policy: Stick to your itinerary

Cruise ships like Carnival Fathom's Adonia will see little impact from new Cuba travel restrictions because passengers sleep on board and take part in organized tours. [Associated Press]
Published Jun. 17, 2017

Want to go to Cuba? You still can.

Even though it's illegal under U.S. law to travel to Cuba for tourism, restrictions eased under the Obama administration made it much easier for American tourists to book a flight or cruise to Cuba for the first time in many years.

On Friday, President Trump took steps to make it harder again. The federal government will limit American business with Cuba's military, which operates most of the tourism and hospitality industries.

The White House instructed officials to begin writing its new regulations "within 30 days," but they won't go into effect until they're finished, which could take several months, according to a news release.

"The devil is in the details. Until these new regulations are issued and implemented, we won't really know the impact or effect," said Andy Fernandez, an attorney and head of Holland & Knight's Cuba action team in Miami.

Here's what you need to know if you've already booked a trip to Cuba or are considering it.

Can I still travel to Cuba as an American tourist? What if I have already bought tickets?

Though Trump used the word "cancel," travel to Cuba is still legal. Anyone who purchased a flight, reserved a room or completed any "travel-related transaction" before Friday will be unaffected by the changes, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Traveling to Cuba in the future will still be allowed for the same 12 authorized categories, with one exception: educational travel must be with a group, which must include an agent who makes sure everyone follows the itinerary. That can be a guide from a travel agency.

How can I make sure my trip doesn't get me in trouble?

Sticking closely to the itinerary you or your travel group prepared is the best way to avoid any penalties, said Doug Jacobson, a sanctions lawyer in Washington, D.C. "I certainly would encourage any travelers to Cuba to keep a very detailed accounting … of what you did during each day of your trip," Jacobson said. That should include receipts for any hotel, to show it is approved. Jacobson said trips longer than a week are harder to justify. The Treasury Department will enforce audits of Americans traveling to Cuba but it is unclear how often or rigorous those procedures will be.

If I can't go to military-owned restaurants or hotels, how do I know how to distinguish them from private places?

The best bet for Americans traveling to Cuba is to follow the lead of the tour operator. Get a detailed itinerary of where and what you'll be visiting on your trip. Don't stray from those guidelines. The State Department says it will publish a list of prohibited military-associated businesses and entities by the time the rules take effect. The Miami Herald noted that this will include many prominent hotels.

What if I booked a cruise to Cuba?

Cruise travelers are likely to be the least affected by the Trump administration's policies. Cruise travelers stay overnight aboard the ship, so they don't have to book a hotel room. Cruise operators also book tours for travelers through licensed companies in the country, so travelers don't have to worry about that.

Will airlines like Southwest continue to fly to Cuba?

Airline analysts say that most major routes from American destinations will not be affected by any new travel-related policies. "The airlines are not subject to any changes, they will still be responsible for obtaining a certification for each traveler," attorney Fernandez said. "What's changing is the enforcement of that on the government side." Many airlines, independent of the new policy, have cut back on flights for lack of demand but not in Tampa, where Southwest flies to Havana daily.

What else do I need to travel to Cuba?

Your passport, of course. You will need to buy a visa to travel to Cuba. Southwest recommends using Cuba Travel Services and provides the company's contact information when you purchase your plane ticket. Each visa costs $50. Because of the ongoing U.S. embargo on travel and trade, U.S. health insurance cannot be used in Cuba.

Can I book hotel rooms online?

Yes and no. It is still illegal for Americans to engage in commercial transactions with Cuba unless licensed by the Treasury Department. Many of the chain hotels in Cuba are owned by the government, which means Americans can't stay there. Privately owned hotels are available, but most don't have a presence online. Travelers can book hotels through a tour operator or stay in a private residence through sites like Airbnb.com.

So how can I legally travel to Cuba?

There are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions. The everyday American looking to travel to Cuba will likely fall under the educational category.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com. Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.

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