Americans will face fewer obstacles in traveling to Cuba under new regulations announced by the Obama administration on Thursday, continuing a promise to thaw relations with the country the President started last month.
While short of lifting the decades-old U.S. embargo on the island, a move that would require congressional approval, the administration's new rules on travel and trade will likely herald a new era in ties between the two countries.
Under the softened regulations whose details were outlined in more detail Thursday, Americans will be able to visit Cuba without first seeking a license from the Treasury Department, so long as the travel meets certain criteria. The new regulations will take effect Friday, according to the U.S. Treasury.
President Barack Obama originally announced the change in U.S. policy on Cuba on Dec. 17, as part of a larger deal that secured the release of Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor who was imprisoned on the island for five years.
Cuban Americans traveling to see family members, American officials on government trips, journalists on assignment on the island as well as every day citizen visiting for educational, cultural, religious reasons will no longer need permission first.
The new regulations allow travel agents and airlines to book tickets for U.S. citizens to Cuba without a special license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control known as OFAC.
Americans traveling to the island will also be allowed to use credit cards, a restriction that complicated trips to Cuba in the past.
"Today's announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out of date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement.
In unveiling the new regulations, the Obama administration revealed it is moving to establish a U.S. embassy in Havana, allowing American officials to make purchases that will revamp U.S. diplomatic facilities that already exist in the Cuban capital.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is slated to visit Cuba later this year.
"Today's actions, which are being taken in coordination with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, give legal effect to the historic policy changes that President Obama announced," Pritzker said in a statement.
The administration's rules still present challenges for Americans traveling to Cuba. U.S. citzens will only be allowed to import up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco products, under the regulations, setting a limit on the number of Cuban cigars Americans will be permitted to bring home.
Chris Chiames, Orbitz's vice president of corporate affairs, says the travel booking site expects to have flights to Cuba, as well as hotel options, available to consumers in 2015.
"We're working through how to turn that on quickly. It's not going to be tomorrow," he said, adding U.S. citizens should expect "travel sometime in 2015."
In the short term, Chiames said it's unlikely travelers will be able to fly on U.S. carriers. The first step appears to be giving consumers the ability to book tickets on international carriers like Air Canada, Aeromexico. Travelers could fly from the U.S. to cities in Canada and Mexico, for example, and then make connections to Havana.
Chiames said U.S. carriers are still working through DOT to determine how quickly they will be able to offer service from American cities.
Republicans have blasted Obama's move to thaw decades-old tensions with Cuba. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said Thursday that the new policies will have the effect of "enriching a tyrant" without benefiting Cubans.
"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," he said. "Given existing U.S. laws about our Cuba policy, this slew of regulations leave at least one major question President Obama and his administration have failed to answer so far: what legal authority does he have to enrich the Castro regime in these ways?"