What the US’s New Stance on Cuba Means for Tourism

January 8, 2015 by

Caribbean, North America, Places to Go, Travel Advice & Inspiration, Travel News & Alerts

Men chatting in front of Revolutionaries in Havana

Men chatting in front of Revolutionaries in Havana

One of the biggest political surprises of 2014 was the Obama Administration’s decision to “chart a new course” in US relations with Cuba. While social media buzzed with chatter that the US was “lifting the embargo,” the new policy towards Cuba is at most a step towards that. Lifting the embargo requires the approval of Congress, which given its current political makeup, is not likely to happen in the very near future.

According to the White House’s fact sheet “Charting a New Course on Cuba,” the new stance on Cuba has come from the realization that the embargo, which has been in place since 1962, has “failed to accomplish [the] enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.”

Located just 90 miles off the Floridian coast, Cuba and the United States share a coalescing history. From President John Quincy Adams who declared Cuba to be an “object of transcendental importance to the commercial and political interests of our union,” to his predecessor Thomas Jefferson who thought the US should annex Cuba, the easing of travel and commercial restrictions towards Cuba is another important chapter between US/Cuban relations.

For travelers, Cuba is frequently touted as a favorite destination. Henry Louis Gates describes a trip to Cuba as akin to visiting another planet with uncanny similarities to American culture. He wrote, “It’s like a doppelganger. It’s the mirror image. And I have no doubt, that once Cuba becomes democratic, that it will be the favorite tourist destination for Americans.” So what does the White House’s new stance on Cuba mean for Americans wishing to travel to Cuba? Below are answers to questions potential visitors to Cuba are likely to have.

Traveling to Cuba

Traveling to Cuba

Can Americans travel to Cuba as tourists?

The simple answer to this question is, “no, we can’t.” While the White House has eased restrictions and reduced the number of formal hoops that travelers must hop through to go to Cuba, there is still no way to visit Cuba as a tourist without violating Proclamation 3447, signed by President Kennedy to establish the embargo.

While some Americans do travel to Cuba by flying from an intermediary country like Canada or Mexico, this is still illegal. As one 75-year-old San Diego womanlearned the hard way after she took a bicycle tour in Cuba with a Canadian company, violating the ban can dramatically increase a trip’s cost. Upon her return, she was fined $7,600 for her trip. We hope for her sake it was the trip of a lifetime.

Malecon in Havana

Malecon in Havana

How can an American go to Cuba?

There are twelve categories in which Americans can go to Cuba without fear of legal reprisal. Anyone with a strong desire to travel to Cuba should be able to find a legal way to get there from the broad list under which a US citizen can go to Cuba without fear of reprisal.

The categories are: 1) Family visits 2) Official US business 3) Journalistic activity 4) Professional research 5) Educational activities 6) Religious activities 7) Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions 8) Support for the Cuban people 9) Humanitarian projects 10) activities of private foundations or research 11) Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials 12) Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

The easiest ways for an American to get to Cuba without specific business or family in Cuba are under educational activities, journalistic activity, or humanitarian projects. There are a number of active charities in Cuba where a traveler could arrange a volunteerism trip, such as Care International. Travel writers working for a publication may be able to get their trip authorized simply by reporting on Cuba as a destination. For more information check with The US Treasury’s Comprehensive Guidelines For License Applications.

Man changing tire of classic car in Havana

Man changing tire of classic car in Havana

How will Cuba change once more Americans can visit?

While it will be some time before Americans can take their speedboats from Miami over to Cuba for weekend warrior-ing, the ease in restrictions will lead to more Americans traveling to Cuba legally. Frequently I’ve spoken with Americans who support rescinding the embargo, but worry what an increased inflow of American tourists will do to Cuba.

Some fear a return to the time before the Cuban Revolution when, as Cuban historian Louis Perez put it, “Havana was then what Las Vegas has become.” It’s important to remember that the tourism that some fear was also the industry that saved Cuba from economic ruin after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Cubans hanging out after a days work in Havana

Cubans hanging out after a days work in Havana

Does this mean that American businesses will open in Cuba? 

While agriculture exports, banking transactions and telecommunications exports will increase due to the easing of sanctions, McDonalds won’t be popping up in Cuba anytime soon. Regardless of American restrictions, Cuban laws would still prevent most American companies from setting up shop on the “Pearl of the Antilles”.

Contributed by Luke Armstrong

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