While more than half a million Americans are already traveling to Cuba legally every year, the door could open wider. There are indications of a thawing of relations, even as the decades-old embargo remains in place, according to travel professionals who gathered Saturday at The New York Times Travel Show.
Currently, visits by Cuban family members are allowed as well as tour groups that follow cultural agendas that don't allow much independent travel.
"I think there will be general licenses before the spring is over," said John McAuliff, the executive director of the U.S. not-for-profit Fund for Reconciliation and Development. "It means you can stay in bed and breakfasts, eat in private restaurants, take the public buses, rent a car and pick up Cuban hitchhikers. It becomes a totally different process of engagement."
Raymond McGrath, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs, participated in the Cuba panel at the travel show and acknowledged that changes have been underway. But he advised travelers and tour operators to research their trips, make sure they're not stage-managed the entire time, and then return to the U.S. to add to "educated debate" on the topic.
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"Cuba caused a lot of trouble," McGrath said. "Fidel Castro caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people all over the world for a long, long time. And the reason that to a certain extent ended was because he ran out of money, not because he had a change of heart.
"But things have changed and change will continue to happen," he added. "It is U.S. policy to encourage purposeful travel ... as well as family travel to Cuba. I'm very encouraged by what my co-panelists are saying today. It gives me a little hope that things may be changing with respect to their relationship with the organizers in Cuba, because the Cuban government controls your movements pretty carefully, and if that's changing, that's great."