HAVANA/MIAMI - American travelers beware: you can't legally book your next beach vacation to Cuba just yet.
New US rules that come into effect on Friday as part of moves to improve relations with Washington's old Cold War foe will allow expanded travel to communist-run Cuba for American citizens.
The new regulations 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.
But trips purely for tourism remain specifically prohibited.
Collin Laverty, president of US company Cuba Educational Travel, said the "educational" category would probably be one of the most-used formal categories for travel.
"You will be expected to visit the agricultural market, speak with the owners of private restaurants, share your own life experiences with Cubans and, of course, to stay away from the beaches," said Laverty.
He has brought around 5,000 people to Cuba over the last four years, organising trips that range from short family visits for Cuban-Americans to holidays designed for art collectors or cigar aficionados.
Many of the Americans who travel to the island already visit beach resorts such as Varadero, on the island's northern coast, betting on the fact that what US authorities don't know will not hurt them.
A senior US official said that under the new rules visitors could still be slapped with penalties for disregarding the travel categories, adding they would have to keep records and documents showing they complied with the rules for five years.
Currently travel to the island from the United States is either via third countries such as Mexico, or directly on chartered flights that are permitted to carry licensed travelers.
Over time, if direct commercial flights start and on-line booking sites add Cuba to their destinations, travelers might be able to book tickets themselves and certify to the airline that the trip was for an allowed purpose, the US official said.
United Airlines Inc said on Thursday it planned to serve Cuba from Houston and Newark, New Jersey, subject to government approvals. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways said they would look into adding services.
"We are interested in providing service to Cuba from multiple US cities, as soon as legally permitted. Our existing charter programme to and from Cuba has given us valuable experience in the market and a strong foundation for future expansion," said JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston.