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Traveling To Cuba Getting Easier, But Expect Turbulence On The Way

Travelers wait to check in for charter flights from Miami to Havana at Miami International Airport. (Getty Images)

New rules that went into effect on Friday mark the biggest change in U.S. relations with Cuba in more than 50 years.

While tourism remains off-limits, the Obama administration opened new opportunities in Cuba for banks, airlines, telecommunications companies and regular Americans.

For the first time in decades, under the new rules, Americans who don't have family on the island can travel to Cuba without receiving special permission from the U.S. government.

No Tourists Allowed — Yet

Currently, around a dozen charter flights a day leave Miami International Airport for Havana and other Cuban cities. Most passengers are Cuban-Americans and Cubans returning home after visiting relatives — usually carrying bundles of goods that are hard to find on the island.

"We're having hundreds of calls to all of our offices," says Armando Garcia of Marazul Charters in Miami.

There are caveats: Americans can't travel to the island for tourism, but they will be able to fly to Cuba to take part in performances or sporting events, as well as religious, educational and humanitarian activities.

Another major change: U.S. airlines will now be allowed to offer regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, although they'll first have to negotiate with the Cuban government for landing rights and gate space. Garcia says the question now is how many U.S. visitors Cuba — a country with just 35,000 hotel rooms — will be able to accommodate.

"They have limited hotel space for large demand," he says. "So in that case, if they don't have that kind of possibilities, they will have to limit, in a way, certain kind of trips."

Trading With 'Terrorists'

Under the new rules, U.S. companies can ship building materials and equipment to private entrepreneurs in Cuba, a relaxation likely to give a big boost to the island's tourism sector. The rules permit U.S. banks to establish relationships with financial institutions in Cuba and allow Americans, for the first time, to use their credit cards there.

But Peter Quinter, head of the International trade law group at Gray Robinson, points out that Cuba is still on the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism.

"Right now, because of that listing of Cuba as a terrorist organization, technically there's an argument that banks should not or cannot do business in Cuba," Quinter says. "So we'll see how this all works out."

President Obama has asked the State Department to look at whether Cuba should be taken off the list, but that decision is thought to be months away. In the meantime, the embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place, and Congress appears unlikely to lift it soon.

An Opening Door

Even so, Florida businessman John Parke Wright says the relaxed travel rules are a big deal.

"This opens the door," Parke Wright says. "There's no one in Washington, I don't care what political persuasion they might happen to be, that's going to stop this train."

Parke Wright is a member of a prominent family in Florida, the Lykes, which has traded with Cuba since the 1850s. The Lykes had a 15,000-acre cattle ranch on the island before the revolution. Parke Wright says Cuba used to be a great beef producer, but not now.

"There's no milk and there's no beef," he says. "That can be changed very quickly, with Florida and Texas agriculture."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New rules went into effect yesterday on U.S. travel to Cuba. Ordinary tourism remains off-limits. The Obama administration opened new opportunities in Cuba for banks, airlines, telecommunication companies and regular Americans. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Currently, a dozen flights a day leave Miami International Airport for Havana and other Cuban cities. Most on the flights are Cuban-Americans and Cubans returning home after visiting relatives, usually carrying bundles of goods hard to find on the island. Rules announced by the Obama administration now greatly expand the number of Americans who can travel to Cuba.

Armando Garcia is with Marazul Charters in Miami.

ARMANDO GARCIA: We're having hundreds of calls to all our offices.

ALLEN: For the first time in decades, under the new rules, Americans who don't have family on the island can travel to Cuba without receiving special permission from the U.S. government. But there are caveats. Americans can't travel for tourism, but they will be able to fly to Cuba to take part in performances or sporting events. Also, religious, educational and humanitarian activities. Another major change - U.S. airlines will now be allowed to offer regularly scheduled flights to Cuba, although they'll first have to negotiate with the Cuban government for landing rights and gate space. Garcia says the question now is how many U.S. visitors Cuba, a country with just 35,000 hotel rooms, will be able to accommodate.

GARCIA: They have limited hotel space for a large demand. So in that case, if they don't have that kind of possibilities they will have to limit, in a way, certain types of trips.

ALLEN: Under the new rules, U.S. companies can now ship building materials and equipment to private entrepreneurs in Cuba, a relaxation likely to give a big boost to the island's tourist sector. The rules permit U.S. banks to establish relationships with financial institutions in Cuba and allow Americans for the first time to use their credit cards there. But Peter Quinter, who heads the International Trade Law Group at GrayRobinson, says there's a potential problem. Cuba is still on the State Department's list of countries that support terrorism.

PETER QUINTER: Right now because of that listing as Cuba as a terrorist organization, technically there's an argument that banks should not or cannot do business in Cuba. So we'll see how this all works out.

ALLEN: President Obama has asked the State Department to look at whether Cuba should be taken off the list, but that decision is thought to be months away. In the meantime, the embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and Congress appears unlikely soon to lift it.

Even so, Florida businessman John Parke Wright says this is big.

JOHN PARKE WRIGHT: This opens the door. And there's no one in Washington - I don't care what political persuasion they might happen to be - that's going to stop this train.

ALLEN: Parke Wright is a member of a prominent family in Florida that's been doing trade with Cuba since the 1850s. The Lykes family had a 15,000-acre cattle ranch on the island before the Revolution. Parke Wright right says Cuba used to be a great beef producer, but not now.

PARKE WRIGHT: There's no milk and there's no beef. That can be changed very quickly with Florida and Texas agriculture.

ALLEN: For now, the door may be open just a crack, but Parke Wright and many other U.S. businessmen are rushing to stick in their toe. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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