5 things about the US-Cuba thaw in ties

A Cuban gives the thumbs up from his balcony decorated with the US and Cuban flags in Havana, on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
A Cuban gives the thumbs up from his balcony decorated with the US and Cuban flags in Havana, on Jan 16, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States announced sweeping new rules on Thursday that will significantly ease sanctions on Cuba, opening up the communist-ruled island to expanded US travel, trade and financial activities.

The new US rules are part of moves to improve relations with Washington's old Cold War foe.

The relaxation will allow Americans to visit the island for any of a dozen specific reasons, including family visits, education and religion, without first obtaining a special license from the US government as was previously the case. The US embargo on Cuba, in place for 54 years, will remain.

Here are five facts about the thaw in ties:

1. Airlines will start flying from US to Cuba

United Airlines announced on Thursday that it planned to begin regular service to Cuba from Houston and Newark, New Jersey. American Airlines, which operates charter flights to Cuba from Miami and Tampa, Florida, said it was reviewing the rule changes.

Currently, only chartered flights are allowed, and many enter via a third country, like Mexico.

2. Only for work or education, not pleasure

Travellers still need to meet one of 12 different criteria for authorised travel, as they have in the past. Those categories include family visits; official business of the US government; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions; and exhibitions.

While general tourism will still be illegal, a lot of administrative hassle will be avoided. Travellers can claim they are travelling under one of approved categories, and eventually, book a flight to Cuba themselves. People may be able to justify their trip simply by checking a box while booking a ticket, the Washington Post said.

3. Cubans look forward to American tourists and investments

American travelers will be able to use US credit and debit cards in Cuba, and bring home up to US$400 worth of goods, including a US$100 worth of Cuban rum or cigars.

US telecommunications providers, financial institutions and agricultural companies will be given more opportunities to do business in Cuba, The New York Times said.

Cubans living in the United States will also be allowed to send home more money, though the United States trade embargo remains in effect.

A senior administration official told reporters: "The whole effort is to give average Cubans greater opportunities to operate outside of being dependent of the Cuban state."

4. Hollywood eyes Havana

Lights, camera, action! Cuba has a warm climate, and many picturesque locations that will draw film and television producers. Low costs are another draw, but the lack of infrastructure could prove an obstacle. Another possible drawback is the strict censorship by the government.

5. US baseball fans are excited

Cuba is seen as a rich hunting ground for baseball talent. Some players defect and play for major US leagues, but they cannot return to their home countries.

Cuba could also be an untapped market for American baseball teams, said the New York Times.