WASHINGTON (CNN) — The end of the 50-year freeze in diplomatic relations with Cuba will mean many more U.S. travelers could be on their way to the neighbor island, only 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
But the days of Havana as a glamorous destination for U.S. tourists — as it was before the Cuban revolution ended legal U.S. travel there — aren’t returning quite yet. And while American visitors who do make it to Cuba will be able to return with rum and cigars, exporting them for sale in the United States still isn’t in the works.
Americans already travel to Cuba in large numbers — nearly 100,000 per year, according to Cuban government statistics. The numbers rose after Obama’s 2009 easing on some of the restrictions on travel to Cuba, including making it easier for Americans to visit family members there, and a subsequent 2011 announcement allowing for certain types of other trips.
Now Obama is easing up restrictions for other kinds of visitors. Administration officials listed a host traveler types the federal government will now allow to visit: government officials, journalists, professional researchers, educators, religious officials, performers planning public presentations, humanitarians, emissaries of private foundations, and importers or exporters.
Officials say all legitimate applications received by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control — the body that dispenses licenses to for Cuban travel — will be approved.
When they visit, Americans will be able to use their credit or debit cards on the island, a convenience previously banned. Agencies inside the United States will be permitted to organize trips. And American telecom equipment will now be allowed into Cuba, making communication with Americans easier.
But the day when Americans can log online to book a vacation in Cuba hasn’t yet arrived. U.S. officials say the ban on tourism in Cuba is still in place; the overall ban on travel to Cuba can’t disappear without congressional changes to the law.
“The ban has to be lifted by Congress,” a senior administration official said. “But the President is doing everything that he can with his authority to facilitate travel within the limitations of the law, and we believe that that will lead to a significant increase in travel.”
Americans have long found ways around the travel ban to Cuba. U.S. citizens have been known to get around travel restrictions by stopping first in a country with flights to the island. Cuban customs officials are familiar enough with the practice to not stamp American passports when they cross their desks.
U.S. visitors will now be able to return to the U.S. with Cuban cigars, coveted for their quality. Cuban rum is also allowed — Americans will be allowed to return with up to $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco. Those imports are only allowed for personal use, though, not resale.
But with the latest crack in the long-standing travel ban, American travel companies were optimistic a new vacation market could soon be open to tourists.
“We look forward to the day — hopefully soon — when all Americans have the opportunity to travel to Cuba,” said Barney Harford, the CEO of travel booking website Orbitz. “There are numerous economic, social and cultural benefits that will flow from free and open access and our customers are eager to visit Cuba.”