Though multiple U.S. airlines now fly directly to Cuba, tourism is not on the list of 12 travel categories that are eligible to visit the island nation. A newly introduced Senate bill with bipartisan support intends to do away with that restriction and open up Cuba once again to all Americans.
If passed, the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017 [PDF] would restore travel for U.S. tourists to Cuba, which would be welcome news for airlines who have been underwhelmed by the response to the 2016 decision to end the all-out travel ban.
At the time, airlines were clamoring to claim the limited number of routes available to Cuba. However, while travel restrictions were eased, flying to Cuba meant filing an application with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Only 12 categories of travel are currently allowed, including visits to family, journalism, official government business, and humanitarian work.
Having to file an application with the federal government is a huge speedbump for travel to an island that had been a quick resort getaway for Americans before the travel ban was put into place decades ago. As a result of the waning demand, Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways dropped their Cuban routes in early 2017, while other carriers, like JetBlue and American, shifted to flying smaller jets to Cuba to minimize the number of empty seats.
Even those people who did go through the OFAC application process and traveled to Cuba faced another problem: Their credit and debit cards wouldn’t work. Do you want to get on a flight with all the money you’ll need for a week’s vacation in cash? Probably not. The new legislation seeks to address that problem by ending the current ban on banking transactions to Cuba.
While there’s still a chance this bill won’t pass, it is a rare piece of major legislation that has wide bipartisan support. The act was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona and Democratic Sen. Jeff Leahy of Vermont. In all, there are at least 10 Republican senators and 45 Democrats and independents, meaning it would only need five additional votes to be passed by the Senate.
The question now is whether GOP leadership, namely Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, will let this bill go to the Senate floor for a vote.