President Obama's midweek announcement to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years has sparked a resurgence of travel interest to the oft-forgotten island nation.
Though a number of restrictions for American travelers are still in place, the President's order makes it significantly easier for prospective Cuban-vacation-goers to reach the island.
Moving forward, and the diplomatic process.
Until now, American visitors were allowed to visit Cuba under what is called a "people-to-people cultural exchange," a program requiring travelers to go with a licensed tour operator, and strictly for educational purposes only. The potentially far-reaching impact of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba on the travel industry is still unknown, but one thing is for sure: Americans clearly are eager to get there. According to the Cuban government's tourism numbers, the number of Americans who legally visited Cuba (exclusively on "people-to-people" exchanges until now), more than doubled in the course of 5 years from 2008 - 2013, implying that the lift on travel bans could increase American to Cuba tourism exponentially over the course of the next few years.
Despite the restoration of diplomatic relations, it looks like leisure tourism is still off-limits, as a complete lifting of travel restrictions would require congressional approval before being enacted. The following individuals/groups are permitted to visit Cuba on general licenses (as opposed to the case by case licenses granted before): Close relatives, Government Business Workers, Journalists, Researchers, Students participating in educational activities, Telecommunications Providers, Agricultural and Medicinal Distributors, Humanitarian Aid Workers, Competing Athletes, Performers, Teachers, Private Foundations, Authorized Product Exporters.
One of the most positive changes to American-Cuban travel policies is the introduction of debit and credit card use for authorized visitors to Cuba. Previously, only cash transactions were permitted for American travelers, forcing them to pre-budget spending - which can become quite an ordeal. And even though the U.S. trade embargo is still in place, allowances have been made for small expenditures, authorizing American visitors to import up to $400 worth of goods, $100 of which can be tobacco and alcohol products (yes, this means Cuban cigars too).
How does all this play out?
The first step will be the re-establishment of a United States Embassy in Havana, providing an effective advocate for American travel operators, and direct visitors alike. The next step is building a strong internet infrastructure on the island, as currently, many residences, businesses, and hotels don't have internet access at all. Cuba has one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the whole world (the percent of the population that has consistent internet access), soft-balling in at a modest 5%. The strengthening of Cuba's internet and technological infrastructure could lead to increased tourism interest, and subsequent stimulation of the Cuban economy, effectively bringing the country back into the fold of modernity and worldly influence -both things Cuba definitely needs after lurking in the shadows for 50 years.
When can I get there?
As mentioned earlier, leisurely travel to Cuba is still off the table, but the Obama's recent presidential order could be a huge step in the right direction, and it seems more likely than not that Americans will be vacationing in Cuba in the coming years. Legislations will have to be passed, embargos lifted, and regulations de-regulated before we all can have the opportunity to lay-out on Havana's pristine beaches, or take Salsa dancing lessons from the masters, but if the current political climate between The States and Cuba continues on its present path of diplomacy and relative-transparency, expect new flight routes operating from major hubs to Havana, and travel agents pushing Cuban vacation packages in the near future.
Auto Europe, like the rest of the world, doesn't (read: can't) offer car rentals in Cuba at the moment, but know that the minute we can, we will, and the prices will be the lowest industry wide - as usual. Until then, why not visit the neighboring Bahamas? After all, what better way to escape the winter cold, than by celebrating your holidays frolicking through the Caribbean's many ivory-sanded beaches, sipping on tropical cocktails? Answer: There isn't a better way.