Within a day of President Barack Obama's announcement that he'd loosened travel to Cuba, local travel agents who book trips to the island were planning to expand their business.
The biggest changes won't affect Cuban Americans as much as other U.S. citizens, who until now have had to obtain special permission from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to visit legally. They're still limited on reasons to go - but now they can get a visa through a travel agent.
Agents warn that it's still not like, say, booking a vacation to Cancun.
"One thing that has not changed is that tourism is absolutely forbidden," said Patrick Ela of Crown International Travel, a longtime Cuba travel agency in West Los Angeles. “You cannot go as a tourist – you have to go with a purpose.”
A newly expanded list of purposes is outlined on the Treasury Department website:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
- Certain authorized export transactions
Cuban Americans with close relatives in Cuba have enjoyed looser restrictions since 2011; during much of the previous decade, they were limited to visiting once every three years. But the new rules put into place last week do allow them to spend more - and to bring more money to relatives.
Cuba Travel Services in Cypress, formerly in Long Beach, chartered its first flight from LAX to Havana in 2000. Back then, the majority of the travelers were Cuban Americans visiting relatives, said general manager Michael Zuccato.
His charter flights stopped in 2004 after tight President George W. Bush increased restrictions a few years later. He offered sporadic flights after that, but he said there was too much red tape. He hasn't chartered a flight to Cuba from LAX in about four years.
“We will start that flight again, probably sometime in mid-June," Zuccato said.
He expects about half of the business to come from curious travelers.