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Obama just made it even easier to travel to Cuba

Tourists take in the sites from a double-decker tour bus of Havana a day after the second round of diplomatic talks between the United States and Cuban officials took place in Washington, DC, on February 28, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.
Tourists take in the sites from a double-decker tour bus of Havana a day after the second round of diplomatic talks between the United States and Cuban officials took place in Washington, DC, on February 28, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the lead-up to his historic trip to Cuba later this month, President Barack Obama has announced he will ease another set of restrictions that will make it easier to travel to and do business with the island nation.

In the first of these new authorizations, the Obama administration will make it much easier for individuals to travel to Cuba without signing up for a tour group. Right now Americans are barred from flocking to Cuba for purely tourist reasons — a regulation enshrined in the embargo that can’t be lifted without congressional approval.

But Americans can travel to the island under one of 12 permitted categories, including educational, research, humanitarian, and "people-to-people" missions. That last category is pretty fungible — it essentially allowed any tour group to travel to Cuba as long as it engaged in a meaningful cultural exchange with the Cuban people. Now, under the new rules, individuals can sign up for trips under the "people-to-people" category on their own, without an authorized tour group.

"That means practically that if you go, you can’t go to the beach," said Michael Kelly, a law professor at Creighton University. "If you’re seen as going for tourism, that’s actually a violation of the regulations, but no one enforces that."

Kelly said the Obama administration has an incentive to entice more Americans to head to Cuba. After announcing that commercial flights to the nation will resume in the fall, the administration now wants to ensure there is enough demand to keep those flights going.

The other major new change will ease the process of transferring money between American and Cuban banks — a boon for the many businesses jockeying to strike deals on the island. Under the new regulations, American dollars can now be used in financial transactions, and Cuban citizens will be permitted to earn a salary in the United States.

Together, the actions represent the administration’s ongoing effort to chip away at the embargo, the last barrier standing between the two nations achieving full normalization of ties. President Obama wants to weaken the embargo as much as possible, creating lucrative business and cultural ties that he hopes will put pressure on Congress to drop its travel and commercial bans.

The president is also working hard behind the scenes to strike a series of deals before his Cuba visit to ensure that his trip is seen as a success. So expect more easing of restrictions to be announced in the next couple of weeks.

Go deeper:

  • Travel to Cuba is on track to become a lot cheaper as soon as the fall.
  • If a Republican takes the White House in 2017, will he be able to undo President Obama’s push for normalization with Cuba? I explain why it won't be easy.