Questions, answers on new rules for Americans visiting Cuba

A taxi pedals his bicycle, decorated with Cuban and U.S. flags, as he transports a woman holding a sleeping girl, near the Capitolio in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, March 15, 2016. President Barack Obama will travel to Cuba on March 20. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Cuba is bracing for an influx of American visitors in the years following the Obama administration’s move to do away with the last meaningful restrictions on U.S. travel. After half a century of estrangement from a country just 90 miles south of Florida, Americans are eager for a taste of the communist island that in many ways has seemed stuck in time since revolutionaries kicked out a U.S.-backed government in 1959.

The latest set of changes to U.S. rules, announced ahead of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Havana starting Sunday, will make it easier, quicker and cheaper for Americans to visit essentially on their own terms. But a formal ban on U.S. tourism remains in place.

“The travel ban is on life support here, because for all intents and purposes, anybody can go,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., adding that travelers could “even use frequent flyer miles.”

Some questions and answers about the new rules for Americans traveling to Cuba:

WHO CAN GO?

Any American can now travel to Cuba under 12 categories of legally permissible purposes, which include professional, religious and journalistic activities. Of the 12, the one that will see the biggest boost is “educational activities.”

In the past, Americans using that option had to travel on organized, group tours through a company licensed by the U.S. Those tours were costly and allowed visitors less flexibility. The new rules allow Americans to take “people-to-people” educational trips on their own, and they don’t need to seek U.S. permission in advance.

WHAT ARE THE RULES?

Americans will be required to have a full-time schedule of authorized activities “intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence.”

Plenty of activities could fall under that category, and the White House suggested it wouldn’t be splitting hairs. “There’s no shortage of opportunities for Americans to build that type of meaningful schedule or people-to-people engagement while they go to Cuba,” said Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.

Visitors must keep records for five years about what they did in Cuba, but won’t have to submit them unless asked. The Treasury Department said it would monitor compliance but offered no details.

HOW MANY PEOPLE WILL GO?

U.S. leisure travel to Cuba nearly doubled last year, to more than 160,000 visitors. Tuesday’s measure is expected to add another increase of between 10 and 20 percent, Cuban travel experts said.

ISN’T CUBA HARD TO GET TO?

It is, but it’s about to get much easier. In the past, chartered flights and routes through third countries were the only way for Americans to get to Cuba. But under previous changes Obama made, the U.S. opened the door to restoring commercial air traffic. The first of up to 110 commercial flights a day are expected to start later this year.

Eventually, many Americans may also come by boat. European cruise ships now make regular appearances in Havana harbor. Some U.S. lines have received U.S. approval but are awaiting the green light from the Cuban government.

WHERE WILL I STAY?

A surge in individual leisure travel could be limited by the near-impossibility of finding lodging in state hotel or private homes without months of searching. Most hotels are at or close to 100 percent capacity and the best-quality rental homes and apartments are already booked through the fall. Several hundred thousand Cuban-Americans visit the country each year, but generally stay with family or in privately rented homes.

One recently added option is AirBnB. The U.S.-based company allows you to search private homes, known as “casas particulares,” and pay through your credit card from the U.S.

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