U.S. Eases Travel Restrictions to Cuba

Restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba could mean exciting and profitable opportunities for travel agents By: Valerie Chen
More U.S. travelers may be visiting Cuba soon. // © 2015 Thinkstock
More U.S. travelers may be visiting Cuba soon. // © 2015 Thinkstock

After more than 50 years of an economic embargo, President Barack Obama announced plans on Wed., Dec. 17, for the U.S. to restore full diplomatic ties with Cuba — including easing travel restrictions. However, general tourism to Cuba requires congressional action and is still forbidden under the embargo.

Why It Matters:
Although the lift on travel restrictions does not extend to leisure travelers quite yet, the plan is enough to incite hope within the travel industry. Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean and located only about 90 miles from Key West, Fla. If Cuba eventually opens its doors to the masses, there’s a lot of potential for travel agents to tap into: striking beaches, vibrant culture and historical architecture, to name a few of the destination’s selling points. Prior to this decision by President Obama, only select travel agents were authorized to send U.S. citizens to Cuba and only by charter flights in escorted “people to people” programs.

Fast Facts:
- With Obama’s decision, general licensees for travel that require no special permission are authorized for family visits, official government business, journalistic activity, professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; and exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials.

- U.S. visitors will be able to bring home up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including tobacco, such as the previously prohibited Cuban cigars, and alcohol valuing up to $100.

- U.S. visitors will be able to use American credit cards and debit cards while on the island.

- According to the Department of Commerce, about 124,000 U.S. citizens flew nonstop to Cuba last year. The number is up from 77,000 in 2012.

- According to a press release issued by American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the organization estimates that at least 2 million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2017 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions in 2015. Approximately 1,020,000 would be leisure travelers going by air; 521,400 would be leisure travelers arriving by cruise ship; and another 550,000 Americans would travel to Cuba to visit family members.

What They Are Saying:
“ASTA commends the Obama Administration for charting a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba,” said Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA. “[The announcement] represents a major step toward ASTA’s long-held goal that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction. Permitting Americans freedom to travel allows them to serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad. ASTA, along with our domestic agency owner and allied travel company members, looks forward to working with President Obama, administration officials and the U.S. Congress in the coming year to ensure that Americans are free to travel to Cuba without constraint from their own government.”

“There are a number of factors for consideration before a cruise line would commit to adding a destination to an itinerary,” said Rob Zeiger, vice president and global chief communications officer of Royal Caribbean. “With Cuba, these include infrastructure and port facilities, and regulatory and policy considerations."

“Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, so there's some exciting possibilities,” said Roger Frizzell, senior vice president and chief communications officer of Carnival Corporation & Plc. “Some infrastructure for cruising already exists in the country, along with several ports, so it offers great potential, but there are other issues that will need to be taken into consideration if this market opens up.”

“We are very excited for the people of Cuba and the opportunity and jobs that will be created when relations with the U.S. opens up, especially for travel and tourism,” said Arne M. Sorenson, the president and CEO of Marriott International. “We will take our cues from the U.S. government, but look forward to opening hotels in Cuba, as companies from other countries have done already.”

“We look forward to the day — hopefully soon — when all Americans have the opportunity to travel to Cuba,” said Barney Harford, CEO of Orbitz Worldwide. “There are numerous economic, social and cultural benefits that will flow from free and open access, and our customers are eager to visit Cuba.”