How to Travel to Cuba

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••• Cuba by Night. IST

Travel to Cuba continues to open up. Restricted for half a century to U.S. citizens, it’s become less complicated. That’s thanks to initiatives put in place by the Obama administration. The President single a "new direction" toward Cuba in December 2014. Since then, regulations have progressively eased, stripping away layers of complicated restrictions.

In the spring of 2016, Obama made an historic visit to the country.

It was the first time in over eight decades that a U.S. President set foot on the island. 

Not surprisingly, tourism concerns are eager to re-establish their toehold in Cuba.. Marriott and Starwood announced deals to enter the hotel sector with renovations and new construction. They most certainly won't be the only hotel concerns entering the market. Cuba is sorely lacking in a tourism infrastructure, and that will take lots of outside help. 

Cruise Travel

Cuba is an island after all. So it's no surprise that the cruise industry has long set its sights on normalized relations. Industry giant Carnival Corp. & plc clinched a deal during Obama's visit to launch the first U.S.-Cuba cruises.

The company's Fathom "social impact" brand will operate the cruises bi-weekly on the 704-passenger Adonia. The seven-night itineraries will call at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Travel Rules

Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of ways for U.S. citizens to legally visit Cuba.

Twelve different forms of authorized travel exist. They include family visits; official business of the U.S. government; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances; athletic and other competitions and humanitarian projects.

 

For the most part, however, the general public could visit only on group tours under so-called People To People exchange programs. The trips had to have as their core a focus on educational activities. They are conducted pursuant to special licenses from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In 2016, all rules, including those pertaining to People to People, loosened considerably.

Individuals are now allowed to travel under the People to People umbrella. That's a huge change, and a welcome one for those not interested in group travel.

Namely, the regulations state:

Individuals will be authorized to travel to Cuba for individual people-to-people educational travel, provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.

Previously, the general license authorizing educational travel required such trips to take place under the auspices of an organization that was subject to U.S. jurisdiction and required all travelers to be accompanied by a representative of the sponsoring organization.

This change is intended to make authorized educational travel to Cuba more accessible and less expensive for U.S. citizens, and will increase opportunities for direct engagement between Cubans and Americans.

Persons relying upon this authorization must retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities. In the case of an individual traveling under the auspices of an organization that is a person subject to U.S. jurisdiction and that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact, the individual may rely on the entity sponsoring the travel to satisfy those recordkeeping requirements. The statutory prohibition on travel for tourist activities remains in place.

What it Means

What do the changes mean?

If you go to Cuba, you must still go for the express purpose of a true educational and cultural exchange. Mere tourism isn't sufficient. But, let's face it. The activities that most people want to engage in by necessity involve education and culture. Cuba's museums, art galleries, music, crafts and cuisine all lend themselves to educational enrichment. 

Make sure to keep scrupulously detailed records of all your activities. The rules state that you must keep your records for five years if you go as an individual. But, if you're taking a tour, you can rely on the tour operator to keep that info for you. 

Here’s one of our favorite People to People tours, from IST

For now, charter flights are the only way to fly from the U.S. But, new regulations permit scheduled air service between the two countries. U.S. carriers are expected to begin regular service in 2016