If you’re an American who loves to travel, then you’re probably fascinated by Cuba, and you most likely also know of the travel embargo and restrictions on traveling to visit our Cuban neighbors. There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about changing those restrictions and on February 16th this year the U.S. and Cuba finalized a bilateral air service agreement, to once again allow scheduled air service between the two countries.
The history of air travel has deep historic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Pan American Airlines, known to most just as “Pan Am” was once the largest airline in the world and a principal airline in the U.S. for more than 7 decades. Pan Am started by operating their first scheduled air-mail and passenger service between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. So it comes as no surprise that this recent announcement is big news.
The new bilateral agreement that was finalized will offer U.S. carriers the opportunity to operate up to 20 daily scheduled round-trips between Havana and the cities in the U.S. In addition, they will also be allowed to operate 10 daily round trips to each of following cities in Cuba: Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo Del Sur, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo de Cuba, Santa Clara, Santigo De Cuba, and Varadero. It should be noted however that the restriction is to the number of “scheduled” flights, so if the airlines wish, they can also operate scheduled charters (which falls under a different category) which has been done more recently. This will give them greater flexibility in adding more flights as needed.
Each airline must submit an application by March 2, 2016, the Department of Transportation will announce who is granted permission to fly the routes on March 14th. Airlines must respond by the 21st agreeing to their awards. Normally, in these type of route requests, it’s expected that airline requesting will begin marketing and ticketing immediately and commence flights within 90 days. While airlines normally wait about 90 days to start service to make sure their flights are full, we might see them start sooner if demand is there. It should be noted that in 2013, over 500,000 people traveled between the U.S. and Cuba – most from South Florida. So, you can expect to see service from the U.S. to Cuba sometime in June (or sooner).
What do I need to get into Cuba?
First off, if you’re a U.S. citizen, you should know that the travel embargo is still in effect, and travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens is still technically prohibited. Unlike traveling as a U.S. citizen to Europe where there is a visa waiver program in effect, you’ll need to be listed as an “authorized traveler.” Yep, but don’t despair, while it’s expected that travel embargo will be changed soon there are some “grey areas” that will allow you to become an authorized traveler to Cuba. First off: read up on the sanctions and how they work. There are 12 types of licenses you can apply for allowing authorized travel to Cuba. Once you’ve read up and found one that applies to you, you can apply to Office of Foreign Assets Control for a license to travel. It’s actually surprisingly easy.
Two of the most easily known licenses are the “People to People” and the “Import/Export of Information.” With People to People, the idea is that offering a cultural exchange will promote democracy between the U.S. and Cuba. This license is used most often by tour companies, where those visiting are on a strict itinerary and are not just off walking around or laying on the beach. As long as planned events are listed on the itinerary, say concerts, a sports game or perhaps a famous restaurant, it’s perfectly permissible.
The Export/Import of Information license is a little different. It allows Americans to travel to Cuba in the pursuit of information or information materials. This means things like artwork, books, informational or historical records, or even attending a lecture.
Remember how I was mentioning “grey areas” – well these are where you find them. When traveling under one of these licenses, a traveler is not allowed to include any type of free time or recreation in their journey, listed as “recreation in excess.” Basically, get in, see what you said you came for, get your stuff, and get out. Do not pass go or collect $200. These rules are new however, and things aren’t really well defined. It’s not really clear what “recreation in excess” is defined as – how they might enforce that, or what the penalty would be if your activity was deemed as such. It’s possible you could be fined, jailed or deported, it’s just not that clear yet.
Now that we have that out of the way, there is one more pesky thing: you’ll need a visa.
This can be a long or short process depending on the Cuban government. There are now a number of private third party companies that act as a middleman between the U.S. and Cuba, which can help you obtain a visa – for a nominal fee of course. If you do decide to take a trip using a charter travel company, some will offer to manage getting a visa for you along with travel insurance. Just understand that if you use a charter travel service company and they obtain a license for you, it would most likely free you from having to take a regimented tour, but you’d be on your own to not violate any terms of their license, so make sure to study the license and to read the fine print.
While we await the decisions of which airlines get to fly to Cuba and from where, if you’re planning on taking a visit make sure to read up on rules while in Cuba and what you are permitted to bring back. For example you can purchase Cuban made cigars and rum while visiting Cuba, however you are not permitted to bring them into the U.S. as it still violates the trade embargo. Be sure to also remember while you can exchange currency to Cuban Pesos, it’s prohibited to take Cuban Pesos out of Cuba!
The ability to soon travel to Cuba is exciting for people on both sides of the water, I’ll see you in Cuba.