The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.
Within months or even weeks, U.S. citizens could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling Cuba's famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department's wrath.
"This is travel to Cuba for literally any American," said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.
But it won't all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.
The new rules will not entirely lift the U.S. travel ban on Cuba, but will allow educational trips organized by authorized groups. So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999, but disappeared in 2004 in a clampdown what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.
Insight Cuba is one of at least a dozen travel groups that have applied for a license to operate on the island since details of the change were issued in April. If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said.
In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana's stately, but crumbling cityscape.
Approved tours will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.
U.S. Treasury Department guidelines say such tours must guarantee a "full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction" with Cubans. But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.
"It's more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses," Popper said.