Good news for travelers: exploring Cuba just got a whole lot easier and more affordable.
You can thank President Obama, who on Tuesday took a significant stride in easing travel restrictions to Cuba. Leisure travelers are no longer required to join educational group tours (which can often be expensive) but can travel solo for “individual people-to-people educational travel, provided that the traveler engages in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities,” according to a statement from the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Commerce. These changes take effect today, March 16th.
The news was announced just days before President Obama touches down in Havana on Sunday for the first trip of an American President to Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
But don’t go booking a beach vacation just yet—travel to Cuba is still required to be educational, including visits to museums, seeing cultural sights, and direct interaction with the Cuban people. Travelers must also keep records of their trip for five years, “demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities,” according to a government press release.
Travelers will feel the impact of the new regulations in their wallets, too. “This change is intended to make authorized educational travel to Cuba more accessible and less expensive,” the press release states. Travel to Cuba must fall within one of 12 authorized categories—including family visits, journalistic activity, humanitarian projects, professional research, educational activities, and more—but now travelers are in the driver’s seat to determine what they do, where they stay, and how much they spend.
So what exactly does this mean for travelers? Here’s the gist of what you need to know:
1. Scheduled air service: Up to 110 direct commercial daily flights between the U.S. and Cuba will be restored (American Airlines alone has requested 18 daily flights from Miami International Airport to Cuba).
2. A chaperone is no longer needed: Previously, travelers had to be accompanied by a representative of a tour group for their educational trip. Now, your education is in your own hands.
3. The arrival of American hotel chains: Change in Cuba will continue, as American hotel chains including Marriott and Starwood are expected to receive official U.S. approval to operate in Cuba.
4. Cuban merchandise for personal consumption: The new regulations will allow the import of up to $400 per person in Cuban merchandise for personal use, though with one caveat: only $100 of that merchandise can be alcohol or tobacco products.
5. Mail service is restored: It is now possible to send mail directly from the U.S. to Cuba (something that has not been done for more than 50 years). Think of the postcards!
With no tour group chaperones, American travelers are essentially free to plan the details of their own trips. Yet the government has its own hopes for what this ease in travel restrictions might mean. According to a joint statement from the Treasury and Commerce Departments, the hope is that educational exchange activities will “support civil society in Cuba or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”
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