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White House Begins Implementing Changes In U.S.-Cuban Relations

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba set off a fierce debate about when former enemies are no longer enemies and about human rights on the island. But many Americans wondered if this meant they could finally go to the island. Well, today, the Obama administration is loosening some restrictions. A U.S. travel ban to Cuba is still technically in place, but experts say it's now a lot easier to get there. Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Between 1915 and 1930, Havana attracted more tourists than any other destination in the Caribbean. And the changes the Obama administration is putting into effect today suggest that more Americans will soon be making that trip again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUBAN CABBY")

DESI ARNAZ: (Singing) Forget the manana and come to Havana with me. I'm the Cuban cabby.

ARNOLD: That's Desi Arnaz in 1947, singing about a horse-drawn carriage driver in Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUBAN CABBY")

ARNAZ: (Singing) I'm the Cuban cabby. And I need dinero, money that is. The moon is peeping, the shadows creeping.

ARNOLD: Of course, today, Cuba is desperate for tourist money. Officially, the ban on Americans visiting Cuba as tourists remains in place unless Congress removes it. But effectively this move by the president...

JULIA SWEIG: This is the end of the travel ban as we know it.

ARNOLD: Julia Sweig is a Cuba scholar, formerly with the Council on Foreign Relations. She says it used to be that in order to travel to Cuba, you needed to formally apply for approval from the government. Now that's changed.

SWEIG: Most Americans can now go to Cuba without asking permission of their government in advance, and that's a very big deal.

ARNOLD: Now you still need to claim that you're going to Cuba for one of 12 approved purposes - for example, as a journalist or for research or for educational purposes. But it appears that nobody is really going to check. Collin Laverty is the president of Cuban Educational Travel, which is an approved tour organizer taking groups of students and others to Cuba.

COLLIN LAVERTY: It's monumental. You can expect that this will double, triple or even quadruple traffic from United States to Cuba in the coming years.

ARNOLD: To follow the rules, if you travel, say, for education, you're still supposed to be part of some legitimate educational tour group.

LAVERTY: You can't just go and kind of putz around.

ARNOLD: Still, it just got a lot easier to go Cuba. Sweig thinks pretty soon Americans can will be able to book travel with major airlines direct to Cuba much the same way we travel anywhere else. And if you do go to Cuba, you can now bring back a $100's worth of Cuban cigars legally. Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.