On December 17 of 2014, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would at long last restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Because travel to Cuba was off limits for many years, American travelers have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to immerse themselves in the island’s rich history and culture ever since.
After all, the music of Cuba has had an enormous international influence, from the classic Son cubano sound embodied by the Buena Vista Social Club to the lively Cuban jazz of Tito Puente and Cachao. And popular dance styles such as the Mambo, Cha-Cha-Cha and Salsa can all be traced back to the sexy (and controversial) Cuban Danzón, which mixed English, Spanish and Afro-Caribbean influences.
With American Airlines’ first charter flight departing from Los Angeles to Cuba this past weekend, the restrictions on travel to Cuba haven’t been this loose in 50+ years. More and more Americans are looking into visiting Cuba before mass tourism development transforms the island nation forever. But it’s important to understand that there are still many restrictions in place.
Here, we’ll address five common questions people have about Americans traveling to Cuba…
Can Americans travel to Cuba anytime they want?
Unfortunately, no. American travelers still need to be officially authorized to visit Cuba. But the White House has made it MUCH easier, listing 12 categories in which U.S. travelers can be approved:
“(1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.”
Furthermore, there are expensive charter flights available from airports in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans. But it may be several more months before U.S. airlines can begin offering regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba.
Once I’m in Cuba, am I free to explore the country?
Not exactly. Traditional sun and sand tourism is still technically illegal, so you can’t just hop on a plane for a fun-filled weekend of tropical beaches, mojitos, Cuban cigars and salsa dancing.
The official White House statement released last year suggested that restrictions on American travel to Cuba may loosen over time. But for now, independent travel to Cuba is still a non-no for U.S. citizens.
People-to-people trips such as our “Building Bridges” Cuba journey will remain highly scheduled for the foreseeable future. There are opportunities for deep cultural exchanges– visits to homes or studios of musicians and artists, discussions with academics and more– but all meals, guides, transportation and activities must be coordinated with a licensed tour operator.
Is Cuba ready for mass tourism?
Not yet, but they’re working on it. Last year saw around 700,000 Americans travel to Cuba, but some experts believe the country could see up to 10 million American visitors a year once the floodgates are fully opened. Unfortunately, the decades-long travel ban has left a largely crumbling infrastructure that will need some serious upgrades in order to meet the average U.S. traveler’s expectations.
The challenges on the ground are many: The country has few quality hotels that measure up to American expectations. There aren’t currently enough taxis and buses in operations to handle the transportation demands a surge in U.S. visitors would bring. Cell phone service is spotty even in big cities such as Havana. And Internet access? Good luck finding decent wi-fi (those who do are typically charged at least $6 an hour).
Though mass tourism companies ranging from Carnival Cruises to Delta Airlines are eager to offer travelers improved access to Cuba, it’s going to take several years to improve Cuba’s infrastructure to measure up to modern standards.
What can I bring back home from my visit to Cuba?
Here we have good news. Under the new White House policy, “licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba, of which no more than $100 can consist of tobacco products and alcohol combined.” Experts predict that these limitations will be loosened even more as U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba improve.
According to State Department records, Secretary of State John Kerry (who raised the flag at the U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in 50 years in August) brought back a humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of rum from his visit. So, assuming you have space in your suitcase, you can bring back plenty of Cuban souvenirs for family and friends.
When is the best time to travel to Cuba?
As restrictions on American travel to Cuba are gradually loosened more and more in the coming years, you can bet that the tourism industry will invest in building up the infrastructure of this mysterious tropical paradise (which is, after all, located just 90 miles away from Key West). It’s basically a given that Cuban tourism is going to explode. The only questions are when, and how big will the industry get?
The expected international investment in mass market tourism will almost certainly bring with it elements of homogeneity. That distinctive Cuban culture we mentioned earlier will almost inevitably be watered down, historic hotels will be rebuilt to appeal to modern tastes, and classic cars will likely be replaced with newer, more reliable models.
In other words, if you want to explore a colorful Cuban culture and remarkable natural areas that have remained largely untouched by globalization, there’s no time like the present! –Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. Along with his photographer wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.