Last updated: 01:55 PM ET, Wed October 07 2015

Pope's Visit Puts Cuba in The Spotlight For US Travelers

Features & Advice | Josh Lew | September 25, 2015

Pope's Visit Puts Cuba in The Spotlight For US Travelers

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Pope Francis has been winning fans among both the religious and non-religious. He makes news often with his unexpected statements. During his first stay in the U.S., he will most likely speak on issues like income inequality and global warming.

One of the biggest side effects of this papal visit to the Americas could be an even-friendlier relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Right before flying into Washington, Francis spent about two days in Cuba, even meeting Fidel Castro, who has never been on good terms with the Catholic Church. 

Last year, the Vatican helped mediate and facilitate talks between the U.S. and Cuba that eventually led to the current plan to thaw relations and phase out the decades-long embargo that has basically cut Cuba off from the rest of the world. Delegations from Washington and Havana were actually hosted by the Vatican for talks in Rome.

Easier for Americans to Go to Cuba

As a result of these talks, it has become somewhat easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Resort tourism is still technically illegal, but there is no need to go through a lengthy application process to travel to Cuba. Every American’s trip must fall into one of 12 acceptable categories of travel, but there is more flexibility when it comes to fitting a trip into one of these categories. Perhaps more importantly, U.S. travelers can bring up to $400 worth of Cuban goods back to the States with them. (There is no longer a need to tuck those cigars inside your dirty socks).

A complete normalization in relations (which will open the door for investment in Cuba) will require some sort of approval from the government. Though there are still some restrictions on tourism, the “first wave” of American going into Cuba will be made up of tourists, not investors and businesspeople.

Cuba in the Spotlight

Francis might be well aware that his visit to Cuba right before he goes to the U.S. will get a lot of play in the media. People who were watching the coverage closely actually got a whirlwind tour of Cuba along with the pontiff. He visited some of the most famous sites in the country during his short stay and spent time in Havana and Santiago.

This TV coverage has put Cuba on the radar of average Americans. These folks might spend a week every winter somewhere in the Caribbean or in Florida. They have just now been made aware of the possibilities of traveling to formerly-off-limits Cuba.

A Fine Line

Many on both sides of the 90-mile stretch of sea between Cuba and Florida were disappointed that the Pope didn’t use his status to directly mention either the crippling U.S. embargo or Cuba's poor human rights record. He only spoke in broader terms, encouraging the island nation to “open up” to the world and to allow greater religious freedoms to its people.

Vatican watchers think that Francis will probably focus on other topics as he travels through the U.S. He will leave any Cuba talk for “behind-closed-doors” meetings. This means that the main intent of his visit was to bring attention to Cuba and, indirectly, to American’s new ability to travel there without fearing arrest and fines upon their return.

Cuba is doing its part too

Cuba responded positively to past visits from the Vatican's leaders. After Pope John Paul came in the late 1990s, the government began to loosen restrictions on the church in Cuba.

Raul Castro, acting leader and Fidel’s younger brother, has been more interested in reaching out to the Vatican and the U.S. He went to all three of the masses that the Pope held while in Cuba and has, more or less, welcomed the thawing of relations with Washington. 

Again, before U.S. investment can take place on a large scale in Cuba, there must be some sort of congressional action to end the embargo. This means that tourists will be the first wave of Americans to enter Cuba. After Pope Francis’ highly publicized visit, many people are realizing for the first time that Cuba is becoming more accessible to travelers from the U.S. 

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