In December 2014, President Obama announced that the US will begin to take steps to increase its relations with Cuba. Part of this includes increased trade between the two countries, but, moral quandaries aside, the real question on everyone’s mind (at least those venturous types) is, when can I visit Cuba and get that b-e-a-utiful sand between my toes and experience the vibrant culture? Well, as of August 2016, there are now regular flights to Cuba from the United States from certain airlines/cities; however, it is still technically illegal to travel to Cuba…unless you fit into an exception.
At least right now, there are still restrictions in place that prevent straight tourism (aka sun and sand vacations), but amendments to the regulations of the Department of Treasury and Commerce have made it possible for those living in the US to travel to Cuba and obtain general licenses for these 12 limited reasons:
- (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.1
Basically, there’s no need to pre-apply anymore as everything is self-managed. If you fall into one of the above categories, then all you need is a valid passport and a Cuban tourist card, which can be obtained from your travel agency, tour operator or airline.
For those not opposed to open trade and tourism between the US and Cuba, I’m sure you can almost picture sipping a Cuba Libre on those white, sandy beaches and delving into Cuba’s rich history from the source. But, what exactly classifies as “educational” and “research” activities or the “transmission of information”? These do seem pretty broad. We know since 2012, Obama has allowed people-to-people programs to reinstitute educational and cultural exchange programs to Cuba, but what if you are not willing to pay for these special programs? Can you still go? It remains to be seen how broad these categories will be interpreted, but some speculate that as long as you go to talk with the people of Cuba, learn about their culture, and discuss the US with them, then you might be on your own cultural and educational tour. Wayne Smith, a consultant at the Center for International Policy in Washington and a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told the Huffington Post writer Roque Planas, “As far as the educational trips go, all you have to do is sign a piece of paper saying you’re going to learn about some aspect of Cuban life. . . It’s very easy. Virtually anyone who wants to travel to Cuba now can do so.”2 Despite Mr. Smith’s confidence in the lackadaisical enforcement of the new guidelines, it is too early to tell if planning your own trip alone and with a broad interpretation of what an educational trip is would be worth the fine.
If you do think you fit into one of these 12 categories, make sure you can back it up with valid justifications or else you could be faced with an audit or fines by the Office of Foreign Assets Control. Your safest (and most expensive) option is to book your travel through a people-to-people type company with experience in traveling to Cuba. However, you can now also get your visa at the airport check-in counter for flights leaving from the US, which costs an additional fee. Call you airline before you travel to verify.
What method of travel you choose, it is clear that travel to Cuba is easier, and now is the time to discover this gorgeous country and its rich history. Buen viaje!