While more than half a million Americans are already traveling to Cuba legally every year, the door could open wider. There are indications of a thawing of relations, even as the decades-old embargo remains in place, according to travel professionals who gathered Saturday at The New York Times Travel Show.
Currently, visits by Cuban family members and tour groups are allowed that follow a cultural agenda that don't allow much independent travel.
"I think there will be general licenses before the spring is over," said John McAuliff, the executive director of the U.S. not-for-profit Fund for Reconciliation and Development. "It means you can stay in bed and breakfasts, eat in private restaurants, take the public buses, rent a car and pick up Cuban hitchhikers. It becomes a totally different process of engagement."
Raymond McGrath, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs, participated in the Cuba panel at the travel show and acknowledged that changes have been underway. But he advised travelers and tour operators to research their trips, make sure they're not stage-managed the entire time, and then return to the U.S. to add to "educated debate" on the topic.
"Cuba caused a lot of trouble," McGrath said. "Fidel Castro caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people all over the world for a long, long time. And the reason that to a certain extent ended was because he ran out of money, not because he had a change of heart.