RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to another complicated diplomatic relationship. This past week, President Obama began the process of normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. And that has many dreaming of future travel plans, soaking up the sun on a warm Cuban beach while sipping a real mojito.
In truth, that's not likely to happen for quite a while. But NPR's David Schaper reports those with longtime ties to Cuba are already thinking about the possibilities this new deal might bring.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Tom Popper has fought long and hard for an end to the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. And he's seen his hopes rise and fall with the ebb and flow of Cuban-American relations over the last couple of decades. So to say that President Obama's announcement on Wednesday was a bit of a shock is an understatement.
TOM POPPER: When I first heard the news on my way to the office that morning, I almost drove off the road.
SCHAPER: Popper is the president of the New York-based people-to-people travel company Insight Cuba.
POPPER: It's wonderful news for the U.S., for travelers, for business interests, for relations between the two countries.
SCHAPER: Popper sees a greater opportunity for educational and cultural exchanges between the two countries. But he cautions that some restrictions, including a ban on travel to Cuba strictly for tourism, will remain in place. Still, Eben Peck of the American Society of Travel Agents calls the agreement announced this week a step in the direct direction.
EBEN PECK: It's going to mean more business for our members who participate in the Cuban market. But the full benefits of freedom to travel to Cuba is not going to be felt until the travel ban is lifted in entirety.
SCHAPER: Right now, only charter flights are able to fly between the U.S. and Cuba. Cruise ship companies, such as Carnival, say Cuba presents some exciting possibilities, but note there are some infrastructure issues that need to be addressed. There are a handful of international chain hotels in Cuba, but far too few to handle large volumes of U.S. tourists. And here's something American travelers won't be able to find at all in Cuba - a Starbucks.
ACHY OBEJAS: And no, they won't. There's nothing like this in Cuba and there actually won't be for a very, very long time.
SCHAPER: Achy Obejas is a writer who was born in Cuba. She is talking about her home country in a Starbucks on Chicago's south side.
OBEJAS: Because for there to be a Starbucks or a McDonald's or any kind of American business of this nature, the embargo has to be lifted. And these new policy changes do not affect the embargo.
SCHAPER: But Obejas says the agreement to begin to normalize relations is huge because it finally starts the conversation about eventually ending the trade embargo, which she says is critical to Cuba's future. The first step, she says, is making it easier to travel between the two countries. And Obejas should know. She's lived for extended periods of time in Cuba and has spent much of her adult life traveling back and forth.
OBEJAS: It is a bit of a nightmare. You need a license. You have to ask permission. You have to join a group. You have to do something. It's not like just getting on a plane and going to the Bahamas. You actually have to go through some, you know, BS.
SCHAPER: Along with freer travel to and from Cuba, there will being an easing of banking restrictions so American travelers, for the first time, will be able to use credit and debit cards in Cuba. And they won't have to carry large sums of cash. That could actually free up American visitors to spend more, and it would help Cuban businesses. But the bottom line for Obejas is this.
OBEJAS: That Cuba will cease to be special in about, you know, five or six years. That it will just be one more country in the Caribbean to which you can access, which sounds banal but is actually wonderful to not be an outlier, to not be this dark, forbidden place.
SCHAPER: In other words, normal. Obejas says the easing of travel restrictions will reconnect families, create economic and educational opportunities and encourage those Cubans who do leave the island nation to go back. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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