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What Obama's new ties with Cuba mean for travelers

Obama said the U.S. would reestablish ties with Cuba. What does that mean if you want to travel to the island?

Tour operators said they expect to see an uptick in the number of Americans who want to visit Cuba after President Obama announced Wednesday that the United States would reestablish diplomatic ties with the island nation.

"The phones today have been ringing off the hook since Obama took to the airwaves," said Peggy Goldman of Friendly Planet Travel. And the volume of visits to her social media posts about Cuba has multiplied.

Some callers didn't realize that Americans have been able to travel to Cuba on what are called people-to-people exchange trips that are regulated by the U.S. Treasury. Her company leads trips to Havana and other parts of the island.

Katharine Bonner, vice president of Connecticut-based travel company Tauck, also said she expects interest in Cuba to increase.

"This news will make [trips] even more popular because one of the allures of Cuba is that it has been isolated," Bonner said. "Once that isolation falls away, you're going to see American brands there and more international influence than you do now."

Tauck also leads trips to Cuba. All tour operators who take visitors to Cuba must apply for permits that are issued by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The agency Wednesday posted on its website that it would be making changes to its rules in light of the president's announcement. It also said that "none of the announced changes takes effect until the new regulations are issued."

One change: U.S. travelers will be able to use debit and credit cards instead of being restricted to cash-only transactions in Cuba.

Goldman said that change is huge -- and may be indicative of more relaxing of rules. "If they're going to let you use a credit card in Cuba, they're going to let you do a lot of other things in Cuba too," said Goldman.

Also, under the new rules, Americans will be able to buy and bring home up to $100 worth of alcohol and tobacco (yes, Cuban cigars).

Even before the announcement Wednesday, travel agency company Travel Leaders Group polled a couple hundred of its agents and found that most said clients were interested in traveling to Cuba.

"We believe that there is no greater way for Americans to break down barriers than through their unimpeded travel, where we collectively can exchange in a free flow of ideas," Barry Liben, chief executive of Travel Leaders Group, said in a statement Wednesday.

It's still unclear exactly how the new relationship will shake out. Diplomatic ties are being restored with a promised opening of an embassy in Havana, but economic sanctions remain in place. The step is historic in reestablishing ties between the two countries that ended during the Cold War in 1961.

Twitter: @latimestravel

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