The U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations and reopened their embassies — but it's not yet open season for American tourists hoping to visit the island. The U.S. embargo on travel and business means you still have to have a valid reason to go — and that doesn't include sitting on the beach and drinking mojitos.
Ever since CheapAir.com started offering online tickets in February for direct flights to the island from New York, Miami and Tampa, CEO Jeff Klee says he's seen interest rise among Americans wanting to travel to Cuba. "In the second quarter, we had 2 1/2 times as many searches as in the first quarter," he says. "And it's still growing and growing."
When you buy a ticket, though, you must specify a reason for your trip. U.S. law sets out 12 categories of Americans who are allowed to travel to Cuba, including those who have family on the island or plan to take part in religious, academic or humanitarian work.
These travelers used to have to get a formal travel license from the U.S. government, but now they only have to check a box when they make their plans.
If you say you are going on an educational trip, for instance, you have to have an itinerary that backs the claim up, says Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba Working Group and policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
"You have to have a certain percentage of time in these meetings so that you are not caught drinking mojitos on the beach," she says.
Of course, the Cubans won't have beach police. They want more tourists to visit and spend money on the island. And so far, tourism does seem to be rising. Tummino says it's up to American authorities to enforce their own rules once travelers return.
She has taken several U.S. business delegations to Cuba and says she has seen a huge amount of interest from telecommunications and financial services companies ever since President Obama eased some trade restrictions in those areas in December.
"A lot of companies are taking trips to the island, trying to figure out where there might be an opportunity to try to help build out the telecommunications infrastructure or to help build up the infrastructure to use debit and credit cards on the island," Tummino says.
Some U.S. lawmakers want to get rid of the travel and trade restrictions altogether. But Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American Republican congresswoman from Florida, isn't one of them.
"Bring it on," she says. She told reporters in Miami on Monday that any attempt to lift the U.S. embargo will fail. "We have the votes to keep the embargo in place," she insisted.
Ros-Lehtinen lamented the fact that she couldn't prevent the reopening of the two countries' embassies, but said that she and her colleagues could still make things harder for the State Department by limiting the budget for the new U.S. Embassy in Havana.
"You are going to continue to see pushback from Congress," warned her colleague Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who is also Cuban-American.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., doesn't seem too concerned, though. Lawmakers take their cues from opinion polls, he says. And the surveys he has seen show that most Americans support better ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
"Those who are living 50 years in the past don't," he told NPR on Monday as he celebrated the Cuban Embassy's reopening in Washington. "But the past is the past."
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The U.S. and Cuban embassies are open for business. But there's still an embargo on the books, so American tourists can't just take off to Havana for a beach weekend - well, not officially, at least. NPR's Michele Kelemen tells us about the travel restrictions still in place.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There's no question that it's a lot easier these days for Americans to plan a trip to Cuba. You can book rooms on Airbnb or buy tickets for direct charter flights from New York, Miami and Tampa on cheapair.com. That company's CEO, Jeff Klee, says there's a lot of interest.
JEFF KLEE: It's continuing to grow. I mean, I think that the second quarter, we had about two-and-a-half times as many searches as the first quarter, and it's still growing and growing.
KELEMEN: You still have to have a reason to go. U.S. law sets out 12 categories of Americans who are allowed to travel to Cuba, including those who have family on the island or plan to take part in religious, academic or humanitarian work. The head of the Cuba working group at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, Alana Tummino, says these travelers used to have to get a formal license from the U.S. government but now just have to check a box when they buy their tickets.
ALANA TUMMINO: You say that you're going on an education trip. You have to have an itinerary that backs that up. You have to have a certain percentage of your time really being spent in these meetings so you're not kind of caught drinking mojitos on the beach.
KELEMEN: Of course, the Cubans won't beach police, and they want more tourists to come and spend money on the island. Tummino says it's up to U.S. authorities to enforce these rules when travelers return.
TUMMINO: You know, it really depends, I would say, from customs official, from one to the next, how - you know, how much you're actually going to be asked about your trip upon your return.
KELEMEN: She's taken several business delegations to the island and says she's seen a huge amount of interest from telecommunications and financial services companies ever since President Obama eased some trade restrictions with Cuba in those areas.
TUMMINO: And so a lot of companies are taking trips to the island, trying to figure out where there might be an opportunity to help build out the telecommunications infrastructure or to help build out the infrastructure to use American debit and credit cards on the island.
KELEMEN: Some U.S. lawmakers want to get rid of these travel and trade restrictions altogether, but Cuban-American congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen has one message for them.
ILEANA ROS LEHTINEN: Bring it on. Please present your amendments. They don't have the courage of their convictions. They don't bring it up for a vote. So I say that's fine. We have the votes to keep the embargo in place. Some things we cannot control. The opening of the embassy - that's not in our power.
KELEMEN: The Florida Republican told reporters in Miami that she and her colleagues can still make it harder for the State Department by limiting the budget for the embassy in Havana. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, doesn't seem too concerned, though, speaking at the Cuban Embassy opening yesterday. He said the polls he's seen show that Americans support better ties between the U.S. and Cuba.
PATRICK LEAHY: And those who are living 50 years in the past don't, but the past is past.
KELEMEN: Leahy says he's lost count of the number of times he's been to Cuba, and he thinks all of his trips and those of other members of Congress are starting to pay off. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.