One of the world’s hottest travel destinations lies just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, yet it is one that few US citizens have ever had the opportunity to visit. This is gradually beginning to change, as more and more Americas are finding it is now possible to visit Cuba.
Megastars Beyonce and Jay-Z became the most high-profile US visitors in years as they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in Cuba in April 2013. And many more Americans will want to follow in their footsteps as Havana was recently ranked first in TripAdvisor’s list of the Top 10 Destinations on the Rise for 2014.
Famed for its rum, cigars, music, beautiful women and picturesque beaches, Cuba was once considered a tropical playground for US tourists. But after the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1959, the island became the forbidden fruit of the Caribbean.
Ever since initiating a trade embargo against the communist island in 1960, the US has banned its citizens from visiting Cuba without explicit governmental permission. The United Nations General Assembly has passed 22 resolutions calling for an end to the embargo, with the latest coming in October 2013, but the US government has refused to relent with this most stubborn of policies.
However, under President Barack Obama it has become easier for US citizens to visit the island with permission from the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC). The Obama administration has allowed Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba freely, as well loosening restrictions on educational and cultural travel to the island. Airliners have increased the frequency of direct flights from Florida to Cuba, and further evidence of a gradual thaw in relations came when Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in December.
US citizens are now visiting Cuba in record numbers, according to Cuban government figures released in October. Over 98,000 US citizens visited Cuba in 2012, up from 73,500 in 2011 and twice the number compared with five years ago, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office. These figures do not include more than 350,000 Cuban Americans estimated by travel agents and US diplomats to have visited the island in 2012, Reuters reports, because Cuba considers them nationals, not tourists.
Forget Doing Business
Since Raul Castro took power from his older brother Fidel in 2011, he has gradually introduced reforms to ease the restrictions in Cuba’s economic system and allow for some limited, market-oriented policies, with the aim of encouraging private initiative and foreign investment, while reducing state spending. Cubans are now permitted to create micro-businesses and employ others, while the government has also removed restrictions against travel, the use of cell phones and the sale of properties.
However, the US government still strictly forbids its citizens from doing business in Cuba. The OFAC “prohibits persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States from engaging in transactions in which Cuba or a Cuban national has any interest whatsoever, direct or indirect, including transactions related to travel,” states the official documentation on Cuba sanctions.
This restriction includes tourism, so for US citizens to legally visit Cuba their trip must be of a cultural, religious, humanitarian journalistic, academic or family nature. To do so, visitors will need to apply for a “people-to-people” license. First introduced by President Bill Clinton, then repealed by George W. Bush and reinstated by Obama, the license enables US citizens to book a trip to Cuba through an official, licensed tour operator, such as Insight Cuba (all inclusive packages begin from $2,195) or In Touch with Cuba (from $1,995).
Such trips must feature a full “schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba,” the Department of the Treasury guidelines state. The OFAC recommends that hopeful travelers begin the license application process at least 45 days before their scheduled departure. Applicants can complete the paperwork online, but must then print, sign and send the final application.
Alternative Means of Entry
There are no such restrictions for visitors from other countries and Cuba has become one of the most popular Caribbean destinations for tourists from Canada, Europe and elsewhere. International hotel chains such as Riu, Iberostar, and Melia have built large resorts in destinations like Varadero to meet the demands of the two million plus tourists who now visit the island every year.
Determined American tourists can still visit the island without government permission by catching a flight from another country, with Montreal and Vancouver in Canada, Cancun in Mexico, and Nassau in the Bahamas being the most popular options. Specialist travel companies such as USA Cuba Travel and CubaLinda are specifically aimed at helping US citizens to travel independently to the island. The Cuban government welcomes American visitors and customs and immigration officials know not to stamp the passports of US citizens.
However, independent travelers visit Cuba at their own risk. The US Department of the Treasury clearly states that the restrictions on travel to Cuba include travel “from or through a third country such as Mexico or Canada … Travelers who fail to comply with Department of the Treasury regulations could face civil penalties and criminal prosecution upon return to the United States.”
Furthermore, because of the embargo, all credit and debit cards issued by US banks will not work in Cuba. International VISA and Mastercard debit and credit cards should work, but only if completely unaffiliated with any US subsidiary. Visitors are advised to bring enough cash to last throughout their stay and can exchange US dollars once in Cuba.