Obama eases U.S. travel rules for Cuba: more travel by cruise ship, new direct commercial flights

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration eased rules Friday for U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba or do business with its growing ranks of independent entrepreneurs, hoping to spur greater economic freedom and democracy on the island.

The Treasury and Commerce departments said the regulations that take effect Monday simplify procedures for tourism, telephone and Internet investments, and money transfers to Cuba.

The changes were first reported by The Associated Press on Thursday and come as both countries seek to transform their new diplomatic relationship into deeper commercial ties. By the end of the year, the former Cold War foes should resume direct postal service for the first time in five decades and clinch an agreement on regularly scheduled commercial flights, a U.S. official familiar with the process told the AP.

In January, Obama eased economic restrictions on Cuba in potentially the most dramatic manner since relations between the countries broke down after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 and the subsequent Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban missile crisis.

The action sought to cut red tape for U.S. travel to Cuba, permit American companies to export telephones, computers and Internet technology, and allow U.S. firms to send supplies to private Cuban enterprises. But efforts to expand business, tourism and other exchanges ran into an overlapping thicket of U.S. laws and hindrances, not to mention an uneven response from Cuba’s political leaders.

Many U.S. travellers still need to go on supervised group trips. Routine airline service hasn’t satisfied various federal conditions. Cruise ships and ferries are still trying to finalize regular maritime routes with Cuban authorities. Credit card and other companies still can’t transfer payments to Cuba. Telecommunications companies haven’t been able to set up shop and get equipment to the island 90 miles south of Florida. And Cuba’s government isn’t even running its Internet connections anywhere near capacity levels.

Authorized American citizens now will be able to travel by cruise ship or ferry to Cuba without seeking specific authorization from the U.S. government, though a U.S. official told the AP earlier this week that a direct maritime route probably won’t be established until next year. The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the process and demanded anonymity.

Also, the U.S. and Cuba should finalize an agreement on resuming direct, commercial airline routes, though the first flights wouldn’t start until next year.