Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cuba travel loosens, no licenses needed

Key West International Airport may be a port of entry to Cuba, but no one is able to provide the 90-mile ride to the communist country.

"We currently do not have any authorized air carriers that can actually provide that service," Monroe County Director of Airports Don DeGraw said.

President Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro announced last month that the U.S. and Cuba are re-establishing diplomatic ties after half a century, which includes easing travel restrictions.

Americans who want to travel to Cuba now don't need to apply for a specific license as long as they meet criteria under one of 12 categories, which includes family visits, educational activities and humanitarian projects. But it seems that pretty much anyone could make a case for traveling to Cuba using one of the 12 categories, and there is no way to check it since paperwork is no longer needed.

Even travel agents who want to provide air service to Cuba won't need a specific license from the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control to do so. Nonetheless, for the Southernmost City and any other city, an air carrier still needs U.S. and Cuban approval to fly to Cuba, according to DeGraw.

In February 2014, Miami-based Mambi International Group partnered with flight operators Air Marbrisa and Air Key West to provide flights from Key West to Havana. The service lasted about six weeks.

DeGraw said there have not been any recent inquiries into flights to Cuba, but that could potentially change.

"We're interested to see what the exact consequences of this action will do here," DeGraw said. "Currently, air carriers do need the operating approval. If that starts loosening up, permits become less onerous, who knows what will happen and how that will open up commerce."

No matter how you get to Cuba, there's one thing you can't do: Commit acts of tourism even though it's believed many people will do just that.

Since no licenses are needed, the U.S. government will rely on a sort of honor system where travelers will self-certify that they are, indeed, qualified to travel.

In practice, what it means is that more Americans than ever will start trying to book trips to the communist island, which is closer to Miami than Disney World and has been virtually off-limits for half a century.

"This is the most exciting news we've heard ever since we started doing this 15 years ago," said Tom Popper, the president of Insight Cuba, which takes U.S. visitors to the island on what are known as people-to-people exchanges. "It's a huge change and a positive development for Cuba and a positive development for U.S. and U.S. business interests."

Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates in Washington, D.C, said increased U.S. tourism is bound to fill Cuban government coffers. Many of the high-end hotels and restaurants that tourists are drawn to are owned by the military. If the White House had mandated that visitors could only frequent privately run hostels and restaurants, the regulations might not be as problematic, he said.

Among the raft of changes announced Thursday, the U.S. government will no longer set limits on how much travelers can spend in Cuba and will allow the use of U.S. credit and debit cards. 

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