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U.S.-Cuba Ties Are Restored, But Most American Tourists Will Have To Wait

American tourists, like these visitors taking a guided tour in May, still have to provide one of 12 authorized reasons — such as visiting family or engaging in humanitarian work — for travel to Cuba.
Desmond Boylan

The U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations and reopened their embassies — but it's not yet open season for American tourists hoping to visit the island. The U.S. embargo on travel and business means you still have to have a valid reason to go — and that doesn't include sitting on the beach and drinking mojitos.

Ever since CheapAir.com started offering online tickets in February for direct flights to the island from New York, Miami and Tampa, CEO Jeff Klee says he's seen interest rise among Americans wanting to travel to Cuba. "In the second quarter, we had 2 1/2 times as many searches as in the first quarter," he says. "And it's still growing and growing."

When you buy a ticket, though, you must specify a reason for your trip. U.S. law sets out 12 categories of Americans who are allowed to travel to Cuba, including those who have family on the island or plan to take part in religious, academic or humanitarian work.

These travelers used to have to get a formal travel license from the U.S. government, but now they only have to check a box when they make their plans.

If you say you are going on an educational trip, for instance, you have to have an itinerary that backs the claim up, says Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba Working Group and policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

"You have to have a certain percentage of time in these meetings so that you are not caught drinking mojitos on the beach," she says.

Of course, the Cubans won't have beach police. They want more tourists to visit and spend money on the island. And so far, tourism does seem to be rising. Tummino says it's up to American authorities to enforce their own rules once travelers return.

She has taken several U.S. business delegations to Cuba and says she has seen a huge amount of interest from telecommunications and financial services companies ever since President Obama eased some trade restrictions in those areas in December.

"A lot of companies are taking trips to the island, trying to figure out where there might be an opportunity to try to help build out the telecommunications infrastructure or to help build up the infrastructure to use debit and credit cards on the island," Tummino says.

Some U.S. lawmakers want to get rid of the travel and trade restrictions altogether. But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Florida, isn't one of them.

"Bring it on," she says. She told reporters in Miami on Monday that any attempt to lift the U.S. embargo will fail. "We have the votes to keep the embargo in place," she insisted.

Ros-Lehtinen lamented the fact that she couldn't prevent the reopening of the two countries' embassies, but said that she and her colleagues could still make things harder for the State Department by limiting the budget for the new U.S. Embassy in Havana.

"You are going to continue to see pushback from Congress," warned her colleague Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who is also Cuban-American.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., doesn't seem too concerned, though. Lawmakers take their cues from opinion polls, he says. And the surveys he has seen show that most Americans support better ties between the U.S. and Cuba.

"Those who are living 50 years in the past don't," he told NPR on Monday as he celebrated the Cuban Embassy's reopening in Washington. "But the past is the past."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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