Less than three years after former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro announced a mutual agreement to thaw relations between the former adversarial countries, U.S. Senators are pushing legislation to further open up travel.
On Thursday, 55 U.S. Senators led by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) reintroduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would eliminate current restrictions on traveling to Cuba for tourism purposes. The number of American visitors to Cuba exploded after some travel restrictions between the countries were lifted in 2014. In 2016, a record number of 4 million people visited Cuba — including many Americans, up 13% from 2015. This came after the first commercial flights were approved from the U.S. to the country in more than 50 years.
Still, travelers from the U.S. have to fall under 12 approved categories, which include religious activities, humanitarian projects, journalistic activities and “support for the Cuban people.” The act introduced Thursday would prohibit the regulation of travel and any financial transactions related to it by U.S. citizens or legal residents to Cuba. A 2015 poll showed 81% of Americans support expanded travel to Cuba. However, President Donald Trump has said he would reverse Obama’s changes to Cuba policy unless the government there restores political freedoms and releases political prisoners. He is expected to release a review of U.S.-Cuba policies in the coming weeks.
“Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government,” U.S. Senator Jeff Flake said in a statement regarding the Act. “Lifting the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba can pave the way to meaningful change by increasing contact between Cubans and everyday Americans, and it is certain to have positive benefits for the island’s burgeoning entrepreneurial and private sector.”
The legislation comes after more than 40 leading U.S. travel companies and associations in a joint letter Tuesday asked Trump not to undo policies that expanded travel to Cuba. Organizations including American Society of Travel Agents, the National Tour Association and the United States Tour Operators Association, said would lead to a significant loss of American jobs and stifle economic growth in Cuba’s burgeoning private sector.
“The influx of Americans traveling to Cuba has not only created jobs across the U.S. tourism and travel sectors, but it has also significantly strengthened Cuba’s growing private sector,” James Williams, president of the American-Cuban trade advocacy organization Engage Cuba, said. “We’re hopeful that the administration’s Cuba policy review will take into consideration the opinions of a U.S. industry that supports 7.6 million U.S. jobs, the vast majority of the American public, and the Cuban people over a few politicians in Washington.”
Since the initial rush, interest has seen a slight drop and a few airlines have removed flight routes. However, experts say the number of people coming to the country is still high, and the tourism continues to benefit the Cuban people and economy. Representatives of Engage Cuba say interest in Cuba is continuing to grow, citing cruise lines increasing routes to Cuba and several airlines expanding their service there.
However, until the trade embargo is lifted and remaining travel restrictions eliminated, Cubans will continue to suffer under a stunted economy, they added. “Reversing the measures taken to expand travel and trade with Cuba would directly conflict with President Trump’s priority of supporting U.S. job growth by removing unnecessary government regulations,” Williams said.