Travel Restrictions to and From Cuba Continue to Loosen

Although the complete lifting of a travel ban from the U.S. to Cuba still appears to be years away, travel restrictions to and from the forbidden island continue to be loosened.

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The Associated Press reported last week that travel companies say they are getting permits once again to take Americans on cultural trips to Cuba after the U.S. government tightened requirements following complaints that the tours were skirting a ban on outright tourism to the Communist island.

A month after travel companies complained of delays in processing their so-called people-to-people licenses under new restrictions for organized group travel to Cuba, at least 20 have now been granted.

U.S. travel operators say they have kept most of their itineraries intact, but some have added additional programming and eliminated others after Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) criticized the programs as essentially being cover-ups for tourism.

Insight Cuba got the ball rolling in 2011. After Insight Cuba became the first licensed operator to sell Cuba through the People-to-People initiative, other operators joined suit, including Collette Vacations, National Geographic Expeditions and International Expeditions.

The People-to-People initiative requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country. It was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program.

Meanwhile, The New York Times recently reported that the Cuban government announced that it would terminate the exit visa requirement by January 14, possibly letting many more Cubans depart for vacations, or forever, with only a passport and a visa from the country where they plan to go.

The new policy — promised by President Raúl Castro last year, and finally announced in the Communist Party newspaper — represents the latest significant step by the Cuban government to answer demands for change from Cubans, without relinquishing control.

By the Numbers

According to a recent Associated Press report, Cuban authorities say that tourism revenues rose 12.8 percent in 2011, returning to levels from three years earlier as the key sector recovers from losses due to the global financial crisis.

In an undated report posted recently on its website, the National Office of Statistics said tourism income was $2.5 billion in 2011, compared with $2.2 billion the previous year.

In all, the island hosted 2.7 million visitors, up 7 percent from 2.5 million in 2010. Tourist arrivals continued to increase in recent years despite world financial difficulties, but travelers began spending less money, delivering a hit to one of Cuba's main sources of foreign income along with nickel mining and remittances. The $2.5 billion figure is about on par with tourism income from 2008.

The report also gave other selected indicators on the state of the Cuban economy. It said overall international trade in goods and services rose 24.7 percent last year to nearly $32 billion.

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