President Obama’s order on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years has many ramifications,
President Obama’s order on Dec. 17 to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years has many ramifications, including for travel. Many restrictions remain in place for Americans wanting to visit Cuba, but the order makes it easier for a number of prospective travelers.
Q. What impact will President Obama_s announcement have on the number of Americans wanting to travel to Cuba?
A. It_s too early to tell but there was a large increase in online searches for United States-to-Cuba travel after the announcement, according to the data marketing company Sojern, which has access to real-time information from major airlines, online travel agencies and search engines.
Kurt Weinsheimer, the company_s vice president of business development and partnerships, said that Sojern expects _that it will start to quiet down, but that interest is going to be there._
_From a long-term standpoint,_ he added, _I think the pressure on Congress to open up restrictions is going to be heavy from major U.S. travel companies._
Many Americans already had a strong interest in traveling to Cuba. Citing Cuban government data, The Times reported on Dec. 2 that more than 90,000 Americans visited Cuba legally in 2012 and 2013 _ more than twice the number that traveled there legally in 2008 _ under people-to-people cultural exchanges. These exchanges, which require travelers to go with a licensed operator, were reinstituted by President Obama in 2011 to allow travel to Cuba for educational purposes, _not for down time on the beach,_ said Steve Loucks, the chief communications officer at the Travel Leaders Group, which is based in Plymouth, Minn.
Mr. Loucks said he anticipates interest in these exchanges to continue to increase. _We are already feeling a great deal of demand from clients wanting to go to Cuba, because it has been off limits for over 50 years,_ he said. _We now expect the number of bookings to Cuba to grow exponentially._
Q. Does this mean travel agencies will start organizing more trips to Cuba?
A. In some cases, yes. In fact, some were trying to meet increased demand before the Dec. 17 announcement. Earlier this month, Tauck, a tour operator based in Norwalk, Conn., extended its eight-day people-to-people cultural journey to Cuba to 13 days with stops in five cities.
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_I think it_s a destination like no other,_ said Katharine Bonner, vice president for river and small-ship cruising at Tauck, who has taken five trips to Cuba in the last three years.
Joe Diaz, a co-founder of the travel and publishing company Afar Media, said he agreed with that description. _It is really something out of the 1950s,_ he said. _That_s what makes Cuba special._
Q. Will getting a passport/visa become easier?
A. Mr. Diaz said he thinks so. _But it seems like leisure and tourist travel are still prohibited,_ he said. _We_ll have to wait and see what happens._
President Obama_s order will open up general licenses to travel (which require no special permission) for the following reasons, which previously required approval on a case-by-case basis: public performances, workshops and athletic competitions; support for the Cuban people, including human-rights work, humanitarian work, private foundations and institutes, and information dissemination; and travel related to the export of authorized products.
But lifting all restrictions on travel, including for tourism, would require congressional approval.
Q. Will United States airlines start flying commercially to Cuba?
A. Possibly, but don_t head to Kennedy International Airport or O_Hare International Airport any time soon and expect to hop a commercial flight to Havana, the Cuban capital. Commercial service from the United States to Havana is _going to be down the road,_ Mr. Loucks said.
_Many airlines are already flying between Miami and Havana, but it_s more of a charter service,_ he said. _It_s essentially ferrying family members back and forth along with those on people-to-people exchanges._
United Airlines, based in Chicago, no longer operates charter flights to Cuba for third parties, but said that it was encouraged by the administration_s decision.
_We applaud the Obama administration_s move to continue reducing barriers to travel for the benefit of our customers,_ Charles Hobart, a United spokesman, wrote in an email. _We look forward to reviewing the changes in the travel policy._
Q. What is the hotel room/accommodation situation in Cuba now?
A. _There is a lot, but at the high end there are only a couple of good properties,_ Mr. Diaz said. _People don_t go to Cuba for the luxury _ they go for the music, culture and arts scene._
But if Cuba opens up to American tourists and their penchant for luxury accommodations, _you_re going to see American hoteliers doing their best to find potential properties in Cuba,_ Mr. Loucks said. _There are some standout properties there in Havana and some of the beach communities._
One challenge, Mr. Weinsheimer said, is that _four-star resorts don_t go up in a day in the best of markets._
_Given the infrastructure of Cuba, we know this will be a long investment,_ he added. _But we_re very positive about the potential._
Q. What will be the impact of travelers being able to use United States debit and credit cards in Cuba?
A: A positive one, Ms. Bonner said. _Being able to use credit cards will make it so much easier,_ she said. _Right now you have to think in advance how much cash you need, and it can become quite an ordeal._
The United States trade embargo is still in place, and will be until Congress says otherwise, but as a result of the administration_s policy shift, _licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined,_ the White House said. That_s good news for Cuban cigar and rum aficionados returning to the United States.
Q. What are other changes that American visitors to Cuba can expect?
A. The administration has said that it will re-establish a United States embassy in Havana, which could be widely embraced by American tour operators and visitors to Cuba.
_Having a U.S. embassy in a destination puts everyone_s mind at ease,_ Ms. Bonner said.
Being connected to the Internet is another change that could be coming for visitors to the island. _Some hotels in Cuba don_t have Internet at all,_ she said.
According to the White House, _Cuba has an Internet penetration of about 5 percent _ one of the lowest rates in the world._ Changes by the administration could help Cuba strengthen its technological infrastructure. Ms. Bonner, though, said she is taking a wait-and-see approach with this and the other measures outlined on Dec. 17.
_Nothing_s going to change because some__one sent out a press release,_ she said.
New York times | By MATT BEARDMORE