Of the four million foreign tourists who visited Cuba in 2016, a small but significant proportion were Americans taking advantage of looser travel restrictions introduced by Barack Obama during his final spell in office. Indeed, since 2014, the number of US visitors to Cuba has gone from a slow drip to a steady trickle encouraged by better accommodation provision, the reinstatement of commercial flights between the two countries and the reopening of a US embassy in Havana.
Notwithstanding, traveling to Cuba can still be a head-scratching conundrum for many US travelers. Here are some questions and answers to help explain the finer points.
Can American travel freely to Cuba yet?
No – at least not for standard beach holidays. The de facto travel ban, in place since President Kennedy invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1963, still holds – for the time-being. Congressional approval is required to change this.
The ban was originally enacted as a retaliatory measure after the Cuban Missile Crisis; the small-print of the act makes it illegal for Americans to make transactions in Cuba. To circumnavigate this, US citizens interested in visiting Cuba can apply for a general license. General licenses allow for various forms of cultural, educational or humanitarian travel and no longer require a complicated application process.
What has changed since Obama’s historic 2014 announcement?
Quite a bit. By loosening restrictions on ‘general licenses’, it is now easier for US citizens to travel to Cuba if they fall into one of 12 different categories. These range from the specific (public performances or athletic competitions) to the vague (‘support for the Cuban people’).
Booking accommodation also got a lot easier in April 2015, when Airbnb began listing thousands of traditional Cuban homestays on its website. Qualifying US travelers can now book homestays all across Cuba in advance with a credit card. Furthermore, the reinstatement of commercial flights and cruise traffic in 2016 has made it easier for Americans to enter Cuba by both air and sea.
Before leaving office in early 2017, Obama lifted limits on the value of remittances Americans can send to individuals in Cuba and abolished the ceiling on the quantity of Cuban goods US travelers can bring home. Cuban rum and cigars are no longer exotic treats available only in Canadian border towns.
The re-opening of the US Embassy in Havana in 2015 after 54 years of dormancy means US citizens once again have proper representation in Cuba and a point of reference should they get into any difficulties.
What is a general license?
The US government issues two sorts of licenses for travel to Cuba: ‘specific’ and ‘general’. General licenses are self-qualifying: it is up to the individual to evaluate if they satisfy the license requirements and collate the necessary documentation to back it up (itineraries, receipts, etc.). Although no specific application forms are required for a general license, airlines, cruise companies and authorized travel service providers usually require US travelers to sign a ‘travel affidavit’ (a sworn statement) stipulating their license category when they book. While the nature of your travel activity in Cuba may never be questioned or monitored, it is wise to keep track of all your paperwork just in case.
Can anyone get a general license?
No. You have to fit into one of the twelve categories listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). These general license categories are summarized in a US Department of the Treasury fact sheet (treasury.gov).
Do you need a visa?
All foreign visitors need a ‘tourist card’ to enter Cuba, usually available from the airline or cruise ship you book with. Costs vary depending on the company but average around US$85. When booking your flight, be sure to ask the airline about their tourist card policies. Sometimes cards can be purchased at the departure airport, or they might need to be mailed to you. If you fly from Canada, tourist cards are generally given out on the airplane.
Do US credit and debit cards work in Cuba?
Despite optimistic announcements in 2014, barely any US or US-linked credit cards and debit cards work in Cuba. If you’re American, expect to be heavily reliant on cash. Cuban currency, known as convertibles (CUC$), is pegged to the US dollar, but you’ll pay a 13% tariff when changing money.
How do you organize flights/trips to Cuba from the US?
Scheduled commercial flights between the US and Cuba were reinstated in September 2016 when JetBlue flight A320 from Fort Lauderdale landed in Santa Clara. As of 2017, there are over 100 commercial flights a week operating between the US and Cuba. Many leading airlines have joined the deluge, including United, Delta, American, Southwest and Alaska, giving American travelers more variety (airlines serve 10 different Cuban airports), more flexibility and cheaper prices. Flights can be booked online.
It is still possible to fly to Cuba on charters organized through an authorized travel service provider. Top companies include Cuba Travel Services (cubatravelservices.com), ABC Charters (abc-charters.com) and Marazul (marazul.com).
A third option to visit Cuba is through a ‘people-to-people’ trip. These are full-blown cultural holiday packages that include flights, accommodation and guides. Authorized agents handle the license paperwork, leaving participants with fewer legal worries and more downtime to enjoy themselves. Insight Cuba (insightcuba.com) is a well-established, registered people-to-people operator.
What about cruises?
Cruise ships operating from US ports re-established connections with Cuba in May 2016 when the ship MV Adonia docked in Havana. There are now more than half a dozen US cruise lines that include Cuba in their itineraries. Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) offers a four-day Miami-Cuba-Bahamas cruise with an overnight in Havana. Pearl Seas (pearlseascruises.com) has a more comprehensive 10-day circumnavigation of Cuba calling at three ports – Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba – with day-trips to the Unesco-listed town of Trinidad, and El Cobre, home to the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint.
To meet US licensing requirements, cruise companies must dedicate their shore-time to cultural and educational activities. Don’t expect to be spirited off to the nearest beach. Passengers are more likely to spend time visiting art co-ops or learning to dance the chachachá.
Does this mean the travel ban will end any time soon?
Like all matters concerning US-Cuba relations, this is hard to predict. Without a doubt, President Obama did more than any of his ten predecessors to mend US-Cuban relations. But to fully end the embargo, congressional approval is required. Domestic changes in the US might be another stumbling block, as the Trump administration has sent out mixed messages about Cuba so far. While the thirst for new business markets is tangible, strong resistance from a Republican dominated congress could easily put the brakes on recent progress.