What's changed in 2 years since Cuba opening
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
MIAMI — In the two years since President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the Cold War foes would re-establish diplomatic relations, the biggest beneficiaries have been American travelers.
Getting to the long-isolated Caribbean island has become far easier thanks to a series of regulatory changes on both sides that have allowed more people to travel to and from Cuba.
Travel to Cuba purely as a tourist is still prohibited under the economic embargo the U.S. maintains on Cuba. But the Obama administration has made it easier for U.S. travelers to receive a visa, book flights, find hotels rooms and stay connected once on the island.
Obama has not seen progress on some of his other goals. He allowed U.S. businesses to sell resources directly to Cuba's budding class of private entrepreneurs and to sell their products in the U.S., but the Cuban government has not allowed either of those steps to occur.
Nor has there been any progress on improving Cuba's human rights records and changing its one-party, communist-run government. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser who helped broker the secret deal with Cuba, said that those were always long-term goals that should materialize in the coming years if President-elect Donald Trump maintains the opening.
"This is a long view," Rhodes said. "My belief is that the only path to that success comes through engagement and not through retrenchment. We would like nothing more than the new administration to succeed beyond where we did."
Here's a look at some of the biggest changes seen in Cuba over the past two years:
More ways to get there
When an American Airlines flight landed in Havana on Dec. 5, it marked what could be the biggest change in the new relationship.
Before, U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba had to either fly through a third country, like Mexico or the Bahamas, or use a cumbersome, expensive charter flight service that took weeks to plan and could cost up to $600 for a round-trip flight from the U.S.
Now, 10 U.S. airlines are flying regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries. Travelers can now hop online and book round-trip flights under $200 with those airlines — Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver, Southwest, Spirit, Sun County and United.
There are also three major cruise lines setting sail for Cuba. The Adonia, a 704-passenger vessel operated by Fathom Travel and owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp., became the first to dock in Havana in May. And last week, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian finally won approval from Cuba to start their runs soon.
Easier to stay in Cuba
Starwood Hotels and Resorts signed a deal in March to manage three Cuban hotels, becoming the first U.S. chain in nearly 60 years to do so.
The Cuban government still retains ownership of the hotels, but Starwood, which was acquired by Marriott International, has renovated the hotels, trained staff and supervises the hotel operations.
Travelers can also find places through San Francisco-based Airbnb, which was one of the first U.S. companies to begin operating in Cuba following the 2014 opening. The site now offers more than 8,000 Cuban homes, where people stay in casa particulares — private homes where regular Cubans serve as their hosts.
Other travel websites have begun offering Cuba deals, from TripAdvisor restaurant listings, Booking.com hotel searches and Kayak flight searches. And four U.S. cellular carriers — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — now offer roaming service for U.S. cellphones.
Closer government relations
Officials from Washington and Havana now engage in a wide series of negotiations on topics ranging from law enforcement, environmental protection, cancer research, counter-narcotics and civil aviation.
President Obama visited the island in March, Secretary of State John Kerry visited in 2015 to raise the U.S. flag at the recently re-opened U.S. Embassy, and the White House estimates that 80 members of Congress and seven governors have visited.
Both countries have re-opened embassies in Washington and Havana, and diplomatic talks happen much more frequently.
"It used to be that every interaction between the U.S. (Embassy) and a Cuban official required a formal note and approval from the government," said Geoff Thale, program manager for the Washington Office on Latin America. "Now, they just get on the phone and call."
Rum, cigars, coffee galore
The most iconic Cuban brands are now easier to find, and bring back to the U.S.
During the last round of regulatory changes implemented by the Obama administration, U.S. travelers can now bring back all the Cuban rum and cigars they want from any country in the world. That means travelers to Cuba or any other country can stock up on the long-forbidden treats, so long as they are bringing them back for personal consumption and not to re-sell in the U.S.
Nespresso also started Cuban coffee in the U.S. The Swiss company launched a small line called Cafecito de Cuba in U.S. stores, online and over the phone.
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