Obama CubaIt’s long overdue, but today’s announcement by President Obama that he is reinstating formal diplomatic relations with Cuba after six decades in the cold is exhilarating. I congratulate the President for taking this bold initiative, including having secured the release of USAID contractor and convicted spy Alan Gross in a humanitarian trade for the three remaining Cuban spies who had been held in U.S. prisons for the past 15 years.

There was good news for travelers, too.

Today my phone has been ringing off the hook with media seeking comments on what Obama’s package of comprehensive reforms may mean for travel to Cuba.

Details of the regulations, which were announced today only in broad outline, will be published in a few weeks by the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control). So the fine details are unclear. As they say, the devil is in the details.

Let’s be clear. President Obama did NOT end the travel restrictions. He can’t: That’s the prerogative of Congress, as is the prerogative to end the broader U.S. embargo against Cuba. So don’t pack your bags just yet. Tourism is not among the travel exemptions listed by the White House.

But here’s what is clear about today’s changes as relate to travel:

•    U.S. citizens will once more—for the first time since 1961—be represented in Cuba by an embassy in Havana

•    All twelve existing categories of licensed travel will be covered by a ‘general license.’ What does this mean? Well, previously most categories (freelance journalists, people traveling for humanitarian purposes, athletes etc.) had to request a ‘specific license’ from OFAC, which could deny such requests. Now, under a ‘general license’ all such individuals are pre-authorized to travel to Cuba.

•    U.S. travelers will henceforth be able to use their U.S. debit and credit cards in Cuba.

•    Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will now be permitted to import Cuban goods up to $400 per trip, including $100 in cigars and rum (heck, you can even use your Visa or MasterCard to do so).

The most important unanswered question is whether the ‘general license’ will permit individuals to travel singly, rather than with a licensed group, under the “educational activity” license category. This is the category under which, currently, group “people-to-people educational exchange” programs travel, using a specific license for such activity. Today’s announcement clearly indicates that any tour company, educational institution, etc. that wishes to operate such educational exchange programs can do so without seeking written authority. And those entities that are currently licensed won’t need to request a renewal of their ‘specific license.’ They can simply operate these programs, presumably free of overbearing OFAC oversight.

But will that also mean that you, for example, can travel solo for “educational activity,” defined as face-to-face encounters with Cubans, rather than having to join an organized group such as operated by National Geographic Expeditions or Texas-based MotoDiscovery (which offers motorcycle tours)?

John McAuliffe, of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, takes a sanguine view: “It is clear from the White House statement that individual Americans and groups of Americans will have a general license for any of the listed activities, including what is currently characterized as people to people,” he wrote earlier today. “No applications; no reports; no second guessing by OFAC; no costly group tours required.”

I’m not so sure.

We can also assume from today’s statement that U.S. students wishing to study in Cuba may simply travel to Cuba to do so under a new pre-authorization using the ‘general license,’ so long as it’s for a formal program of study.

Meanwhile, here’s the exact wording from the White House and OFAC:

 “General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (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.

 Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.”

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that U.S. legislation still bans U.S. vessels (aircraft and ships) from visiting Cuba unless the relevant company is licensed by OFAC to do so, and that a vessel of any nation that visits Cuba, unless specifically authorized by the U.S. Treasury Dept., may not call at any U.S. port or airport for 180 days. Hence, the airlines and cruise companies must await further liberalization of U.S. law.

Also, none of the changes comes into effect until OFAC publishes the new regulations.

Fortunately, the release of Gross and three members of the Cuban Five shoved aside the biggest hurdle to normalizing relations, and offers hope that the U.S. and Cuba can, and will, build on the huge goodwill established today. That is, if Republican presidential hopefuls such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush don’t scuttle such efforts, as they’ve threatened to do.

Now all that remains is to end the remaining travel restrictions, which deny ordinary U.S. citizens their constitutional right to unrestricted travel.




Christopher P Baker


Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and success travel writers and photographers is considered the foremost authority on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions and other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.