As of Friday, the door will open a lot wider. While ordinary tourism remains banned by law, new rules put in place by President Obama will make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba than it has been for most of the last half-century. If airlines begin regular service between the United States and Cuba, as they quickly moved to do, it could soon be as simple as logging on to a computer to order a ticket and checking a box to say the trip serves a legitimate purpose.
The rules will usher in a new era of contact between neighbors that have been estranged for longer than most of their citizens have been alive. It will be easier not only to travel, but also to send money. American telecommunications providers, financial institutions and agricultural companies will be given more opportunities to do business in Cuba. Visitors will be allowed to spend more, use credit cards and even bring home up to $100 in Cuban cigars.
United Airlines announced on Thursday that it planned to seek approval to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark and Houston. American Airlines, which operates charter flights to Cuba from Miami and Tampa, Fla., said it was reviewing the rule changes.
“This is basically the end of the travel ban, once they work out the kinks,” said Julia E. Sweig, a longtime scholar and author on Cuba. “At first glance, the new regulations look to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba without having to ask for permission in advance, and by booking air travel directly rather than through authorized groups and agencies.”
That is not to say everything will suddenly be possible. The embargo imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 after Fidel Castro stormed to power remains in effect, and most trade is still illegal. Travelers will have to certify that their visits are for educational, religious, cultural, journalistic, humanitarian or family purposes, among other permitted categories.
Some analysts warned against expecting quick, drastic change. Visitors will still need visas from the Cuban government, and the island’s aging hotels and restaurants may not be able to accommodate them all.
“Where are all these people going to eat?” asked John S. Kavulich, a senior policy adviser at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit group of businesses. “Where are all these people going to stay? The excitement, the exuberance, is just out in another galaxy. You can only do what can be done.”
Moreover, those traveling on people-to-people exchanges will still need to go with a group that maintains a full schedule of approved activities. “So a couple cannot go to Cuba to educate themselves on a subject like Cuban music,” said Robert L. Muse, a lawyer experienced in laws relating to Cuba. “They can only go under the auspices of an organization that arranges a structured educational trip.”
Still, while educational exchanges have been one of the most common forms of travel to Cuba in recent years, government officials said Thursday that they expected the new rules to make solo visits outside of such arrangements more frequent, because it will be easier to travel under other permitted categories.
The rules put into reality the changes Mr. Obama promised last month when he announced plans to resume normal diplomatic relations with Havana for the first time since 1961. The administration made this latest move after Cuba freed 53 political prisoners it had agreed to release as part of a deal between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother.
Critics said Mr. Obama was playing into the hands of the Castro brothers by relaxing sanctions without obtaining commitments from them to expand freedoms for Cubans. Cuba remains one of the most repressive nations in the world, according to human rights groups and the State Department, which have cataloged the ways it smothers dissent through arbitrary arrests, government intimidation, selective prosecution and control of the news media.
“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida.
Mr. Rubio, who is Cuban-American, sent a letter this week to Jacob J. Lew, the Treasury secretary, questioning whether the new rules violated American law. “While those questions remain unanswered,” Mr. Rubio said Thursday, “one thing that’s become even more crystal clear is that this one-sided deal is enriching a tyrant and his regime.”
Mr. Obama argues that the approach of the last 50 years has not worked and that it is time to try something new. Officials said Thursday that they were confident the new rules complied with the law, and Mr. Lew said they would benefit Cubans.