NEW YORK — Americans are one step closer to being able to vacation in Cuba, but don't pack your bathing suit and sunscreen just yet.
A new set of government regulations takes effect Friday, severely loosening travel and trade restrictions that have been in place for 54 years. The rules follow President Barack Obama's announcement last month of a reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the communist island. Only Congress can fully remove the embargo but it is up to the administration to enforce — or turn a blind eye — to the travel ban.
Travel and hospitality companies are salivating at the chance to set up shop in Cuba. Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and the Carnival Corp. have all expressed interest.
Americans have long been drawn to Cuba for its close proximity, its warm climate and the taboo nature of visiting a country off-limits to U.S. citizens since the 1960s. Here's a look at what the latest government rules mean for them.
Q: Can U.S. citizens visit Cuba?
A: The U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees travel to Cuba. There are 12 categories of people who are allowed to visit. They include: close relatives of Cubans, academics, those traveling on official government business, those on humanitarian or religious missions, journalists and people on accredited cultural education programs.
Q: What changed?
A: The groups of people allowed to visit Cuba remain the same but they no longer need to apply for a license to travel.
Q: What about everybody else?
A: That's fuzzier. It's still illegal for Americans to visit Cuba if they don't fit into one of those 12 groups, but without the need to apply for a license it could be impossible for the government to enforce such a restriction.
Q: How can I buy a ticket?
A: Until now, the government has issued licenses to tour operators who then help travelers obtain visas and sell spots on trips to Cuba. Many of them are mom and pop travel agencies in Florida, catering to Cuban-Americans. Others are large tour companies offering weeklong educational trips for $3,000 to nearly $8,000 a person. The new regulations allow travel agents and airlines to sell tickets without the need for a specific license from Office of Foreign Assets Control. That means it will be much easier to book a trip and prices should come down significantly.
Q: How do U.S. travelers buy goods in Cuba?
A: Banks and credit card companies have been prohibited from doing business in Cuba. That gets lifted in these new rules. But don't expect to see ATMs or businesses accepting Visa, MasterCard or American Express immediately. Large hotels are likely to be the first businesses to let travelers swipe to pay but mom and pop restaurants or local shops could take much longer. So travelers — in the near term — still need to bring a lot of cash.
Q: What can Americans bring back?
A: Authorized visitors can bring home up to $400 worth of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use. This includes no more than $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco products.
Q: Will there be limits to the number of visitors?
A: Without the need for a license, there is no limit. However, Cuba only has so many hotel rooms and other necessary infrastructure to support tourism. In the short-term, that will curtail the number of visitors.
Q: Who flies from the U.S. to Cuba?
A: American Airlines, JetBlue and Sun Country offer charter flights to the Cuban cities of Havana, Holguin, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos. Until now, the only way onto those planes was through one of those travel agencies. That could quickly change. But don't expect airlines to suddenly flood the market. Like all other route decisions, airlines need to see if there is a large enough market willing to pay high enough airfares. For instance, a Southwest Airlines spokesman said Thursday, "Cuba is a good future opportunity we are studying." And Cuba is still a difficult destination to serve. JetBlue brings a mechanic along on each of its charter flights.
Q: Are there other ways for Americans to visit Cuba?
A: The Cuban government doesn't prohibit Americans from visiting. So for years, intrepid travelers have broken the U.S. law by entering Cuba via Mexico or Canada and asking officials not to stamp their passports.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.