Yesterday, December 17, American President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced a major thaw in relations between the two countries. Full diplomatic relations have been restored for the first time since 1960, prisoners exchanged, and Obama used executive authority to significantly weaken the US trade embargo on Cuba.
Here’s what it all means for American travelers:
The United States will open a full-fledged embassy in Havana. Since enacting the embargo, the American presence in Cuba was limited to a US Special Interests Section in Havana. Originally staffed by Swiss diplomats, the section has been manned by a small Foreign Service detachment since the late 1970s. It offered regular embassy-like administrative support for Americans in Cubans, like replacing lost passports and calling home, but had little direct contact with the Cuban government, often relying on third-party countries to act as intermediaries. A proper embassy will offer greater resources for travelers in need in the event of a natural disaster, social unrest, etc.
The United States will ease restrictions across 12 travel categories, including: family visits, official visits, journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performances. Ordinary tourism, however, remains strictly verboten. That said, enforcement of the tourism restriction, already noticeably lax under the Obama administration, will likely become an even lower priority for Treasury Department agents.
Americans will now be able to use debit and credit cards and travelers’ checks in Cuba. American banks were banned from fulfilling transactions originating in Cuba, so American travelers had to rely solely on cash. To further avoid Treasury Department detection, unsanctioned travelers were smart to first exchange cash in a third-party country like Canada, Mexico, or Jamaica en route to Cuba before then trading that cash for Cuban pesos. Much of Cuba’s private business sector, of course, won’t be immediately ready to accept plastic.
Americans can now import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. Cigar-loving travelers no longer have to worry about “smuggling” Cuban cigars across the border from Mexico or Canada, as long as they stay under that $100 limit. Though small in quantity, this action opens a legal Cuban cigar market in the US for the first time in over 50 years. Cuban rum will also once again be a hot souvenir item. Cuba invented the mojito and the daiquiri — their rum is some of the best in the world.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this policy change is that American travelers should get to Cuba sooner rather than later. It’s only a matter of time before the embargo is completely lifted and Cuba’s white-sand beaches, rainforest-clad mountains, and colonial time-capsule cities are inundated with tourism infrastructure. That is, more than they already have been developed by Canadian and European companies who’ve gained a tourism toehold on the island, most evident in the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero.