The answer is yes, under specific conditions. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the United States Department of the Treasury, monitors travel to Cuba conducted under general licenses and processes applications for specific licenses, which allow travel-related transactions that pertain to Cuba. US citizens wishing to travel to Cuba must arrange their trips through authorized travel services providers.
Under current regulations, US citizens cannot travel to Cuba simply to vacation there, even if they go to Cuba via a third country, such as Canada. Any travel to Cuba must be undertaken in compliance with a general or specific license.
In 2015, President Obama announced that travel restrictions to Cuba would be loosened as part of his effort to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries. By spring 2016, US-based cruise lines and tour companies were permitted to sell trips to Cuba, and several US airlines began preparing to bid on US-Cuba routes.
In April 2016, Cuba changed its regulations so that Cuban-born Americans are now allowed to travel to Cuba via cruise ship as well as by air.
General Licences for Travel to Cuba
If your reason to travel to Cuba falls under one of the twelve general license categories, your travel service provider will check your eligibility to travel before booking your trip. The 12 general license categories are:
- Visiting close relatives who are either Cuban nationals or who work for the US government at the US Interests Section, which is the closest thing the United States has to an official presence in Havana;
- Official government and intergovernmental organization travel;
- Journalistic travel by reporters and their technical and support crews;
- Professional research and meeting or conference attendance. Travelers must conduct their research in their areas of professional expertise and be full-time professionals in that field. Conferences and meetings must be organized by an international organization in that profession. Conferences put on by Cuban, American or third country organizations do not qualify;
- Educational activities. These activities are open to faculty, students and staff of accredited degree-granting institutions based in the United States that serve graduate and / or undergraduate students;
- Religious activities sponsored by a religious organization based in the US;
- Public performances, athletic competitions and related workshops and clinics;
- Humanitarian projects;
- Support for the people of Cuba;
- Activities undertaken by educational or research institutes or private foundations;
- Activities related to export, import or transmission of information or information materials;
- Specifically-authorized export transactions.
US citizens may now travel to Cuba for the purpose of engaging in people-to-people educational activities on an individual basis as well as with authorized travel providers.
You may still arrange travel to Cuba through an authorized travel service provider. There is a limit to how much individuals may spend on travel, meals, and accommodations within Cuba. Travelers should plan their finances carefully because debit and credit cards issued by US banks will not work in Cuba. In addition, there is a 10 percent surcharge on exchanges of dollars for Cuban convertible pesos, the currency tourists are required to use. (Tip: To avoid the surcharge, bring your travel money to Cuba in Canadian dollars or Euros, not US dollars.)
Which Tour Groups and Cruise Lines Offer Trips to Cuba?
Some tour companies, such as Insight Cuba, offer traditionally-styled tours that emphasize people-to-people opportunities. On Insight Cuba's tours, you will visit one or more cities and meet both experts on Cuba and local people. You might watch a dance performance, visit a school or stop by a medical clinic during your trip.
Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) offers 18 themed tours of Cuba, each focusing on a different aspect of Cuban culture. One tour, for example, emphasizes Cuba's natural wonders, with a focus on bird watching. Another focuses on Havana and its environs, taking you to a tobacco farm and connecting you with a Cuban Hall of Fame baseball player.
Motorcycle lovers might want to save up for MotoDiscovery's 10- or 15-day motorcycle tour of Cuba. While exploring Cuba by motorcycle (provided), you will have the chance to meet some of Cuba's own Harley-Davidson aficionados, the Harlistas. MotoDiscovery's tours are not cheap, but they do offer a unique way to visit this one-of-a-kind destination.
Carnival Cruises' new small ship cruise line, Fathom, announced that it will be offering trips to Cuba beginning in May 2016, and other cruise lines are likely to follow suit quickly.
Can I Go to Cuba on My Own?
That depends. You will need to apply for a specific license unless you are going for one of the reasons listed under "General Licenses," above. If your application is approved, you must arrange your trip through an authorized travel services provider. You may need to provide reports to OFAC before and/or after your trip. You will have to get a visa, carry cash or traveler's checks and buy a non-US health insurance policy if you are from the United States. And forget about buying Cuban cigars to bring back home; they are still illegal in the US.