Should Americans start planning trips to Cuba?

Wednesday's US-Cuba policy shift means that Americans conducting several different types of activities can travel to Cuba with a general license.

Desmond Boylan/Reuters/File
Tourists ride a US-made 1956 Chevrolet Bel-Air convertible car on Havana's seafront boulevard 'El Malecon' on May 21, 2013.

Now that the US and Cuba are reestablishing diplomatic relations, is it time for American tourists to book a 90-mile flight from Florida?

The official US tourism ban has not been lifted. But 12 categories of travel are allowed by the US government, and instead of approval on a case-by-case basis, travel is allowed with general licenses for several different types of activities, The New York Times reports. 

And even within those categories, a lot depends on how strictly the US Treasury Department interprets and enforces the guidelines.

Here are some of the kinds of travel allowed: family visits;  journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public exhibitions and competitions (including performances, clinics, workshops, and athletic events); support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes.

Most visitors to Cuba travel with a group and the US Treasury requires a license for such travel. 

Yes, these guidelines cover a lot, especially now that each individual case no longer needs approval.

“I think it’s a significant broadening of the rules on who can go to Cuba,” says Reese Erlich, author of “Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.” 

Enforcement of these regulations will depend on how White House intentions are realized, says Mr. Erlich, a former freelancer for The Christian Science Monitor. He predicts that if this translates into direct actions, “wide numbers of people will be able to travel without paperwork or reason for their travel.”

In 1963, John F. Kennedy blocked travel to Cuba, and Ronald Reagan reestablished the restrictions in 1982.

Despite the general travel ban, many Americans have traveled to Cuba — legally and illegally. Outside of government-approved travel, Erlich says, many other Americans have skirted the US travel ban by flying to Cuba from Mexico, Panama, or Canada.

About 170,000 authorized travelers made the trip last year, according to the Department of Commerce.  Technically, any American can fly to Cuba, they just can't spend money there without violating US law, and risk up to a $250,000 fine and 10 years in jail.

Overturning the general ban would take Congress’s approval, which would be very challenging, Erlich says.

“There’s a sector of the Republican party and even some Democrats," he says, "who are convinced that the embargo is doing something."

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