American travelers beware: you can't legally book your next beach vacation to Cuba just yet.
New U.S. rules that come into effect on Friday as part of moves to improve relations with Washington's old Cold War foe will allow expanded travel to communist-run Cuba for American citizens.
The new regulations will allow Americans to visit the island for any of a dozen specific reasons, including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the U.S. government as was previously the case.
But trips purely for tourism remain specifically prohibited.
Collin Laverty, president of U.S. company Cuba Educational Travel, said the "educational" category would probably be one of the most-used formal categories for travel.
"You will be expected to visit the agricultural market, speak with the owners of private restaurants, share your own life experiences with Cubans and, of course, to stay away from the beaches," said Laverty.
He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years, organizing trips that range from short family visits for Cuban-Americans to holidays designed for art collectors or cigar aficionados.
Many of the Americans who travel to the island already visit beach resorts such as Varadero, on the island's northern coast, betting on the fact that what U.S. authorities don't know will not hurt them.
A senior U.S. official said that under the new rules visitors could still be slapped with penalties for disregarding the travel categories, adding they would have to keep records and documents showing they complied with the rules for five years.
Currently travel to the island from the United States is either via third countries such as Mexico, or directly on chartered flights that are permitted to carry licensed travelers.
Over time, if direct commercial flights start and on-line booking sites add Cuba to their destinations, travelers might be able to book tickets themselves and certify to the airline that the trip was for an allowed purpose, the U.S. official said.
United Airlines said on Thursday it planned to serve Cuba from Houston and Newark, New Jersey, subject to government approvals. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways said they would look into adding services.
"We are interested in providing service to Cuba from multiple U.S. cities, as soon as legally permitted. Our existing charter program to and from Cuba has given us valuable experience in the market and a strong foundation for future expansion," said JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston.
Rules still apply
Experts in travel to the island noted that the new regulations exempt some but not all groups from the requirement of traveling in an organized group rather than as individuals.
Those exempt include Cuban-Americans, journalists and people traveling for government or business reasons. But ordinary travelers will still need, at least for the moment, to book through a tour operator, which will still be responsible for ensuring the itinerary meets Treasury regulations and does not constitute pleasure tourism.
That regulation "implicitly bars individual travel which forces it to remain under the table," said John McAuliff, who has arranged licensed trips to Cuba on behalf of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
Augusto Maxwell, head of the Cuba practice at Miami law firm Akerman, said the new rules were a blessing to American business travelers who have long been constrained by a $180 per diem limit on spending by the Treasury Department. That limit has been lifted under the new rules.
Previously, U.S. business travelers wanting to visit high-end restaurants and sample expensive rums and cigars had to tread carefully in Cuba to avoid scrutiny. "The older rules were nudge-nudge, wink-wink. These rules are very clear," he said.
David Campbell, marketing director at AllTheRooms.com, an accommodation search engine, urged U.S. travelers to go now, before direct flights and cruise ships made the island 90 miles (140 km) south of Florida too accessible.
That said, while tourism has developed strongly over the last two decades and Cuba is used to visitors from Canada, Europe and Latin America, the island still lacks a wide choice of high-end hotels and other tourism.