The Obama administration on Tuesday further loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba, advancing cultural ties with the Communist island nation days ahead of the president's trip to Havana.
As part of a series of executive actions that will further weaken the decades-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, Americans will now be permitted to travel to the Caribbean country on their own — separate from a sanctioned tour — as long as they complete a form asserting that the trip is for educational purposes, and keep track of their overseas activities.
The announcement from the Treasury Department — which also included provisions that would allow Cubans to open bank accounts in the United States and eventually make it easier for the country's athletes to play in Major League Baseball — comes days before President Barack Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hailed the announcement.
"At every stage in this process of rebuilding the U.S.-Cuba relationship, the increase of people-to-people connections has been at the core," he said. "The United States continues to move itself in a better position to advance our national interests."
Obama reversed more than half a century of U.S. policy toward Cuba in late 2014, when he announced steps to normalize relations that had been severed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961. The nations re-established diplomatic relations and opened embassies in each other's capitals last July.
Those actions have been criticized by some in Congress, as well as the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination, in part because Cuba has a poor record on human rights.
Among the first steps announced in 2014 was the release of former Marylander Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years.
Gross told reporters he supported Obama's trip to the country, and also the lifting of the trade embargo. "It's time to make a break from the past," he said during a previously scheduled appearance at the National Press Club in Washington.
The actions announced Tuesday will allow Cuban citizens to earn salaries in the United States as long as they don't pay special taxes in Cuba. The administration named athletes, artists and performers as potential beneficiaries.
Until Tuesday, only Cubans who had begun the process of emigrating to the United States could legally earn money in the United States beyond a tiny living stipend.
Major League Baseball is negotiating with both the U.S. and Cuban governments to create a legal means for Cuban baseball players to play in the United States without having to abandon their country. Such a system would eliminate the need for some of the world's priciest baseball talent to rely on human traffickers to get to the major leagues.
As for ordinary Americans, they can now take "people-to-people" educational trips to Cuba on their own instead of joining expensive group tours.
That means any Americans can legally go to Cuba after filling out a form asserting that their trip is for educational purposes instead of tourism. They'll have to keep records for five years about what they did in Cuba, but won't have to submit the records unless asked.
The Obama administration previously allowed independent travel for specific purposes, such as supporting religious organizations or participating in sports events. Tuesday's move was expected to have greater impact because the definition of educational travel is so broad it can include virtually any activity that isn't lying on a beach drinking mojitos.
U.S. leisure travel to Cuba nearly doubled last year, to more than 160,000 visitors, and Tuesday's measure is expected to add another 10 percent to 20 percent, helping fill seats on as many as 110 commercial flights a day starting later this year.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Havana on Sunday. He is expected to call for elimination of the nearly six-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba. His administration has already eliminated numerous trade and travel limits through executive action.
Florida-based Island Travel & Tours organized charter flights from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Havana until recently.
President William J. Hauf said the company halted the Baltimore flights last year, but he would consider starting them again if more people showed interest. His company continues to offer flights from Florida.
"It's a very substantial step forward for Americans to be allowed to travel in a country that has been shrouded in mystery for the last 50 years," Hauf said. "It's more of a people-to-people experience when people travel as individuals."
Jasmin Torres, the executive director of Cuba Life Travels, a Baltimore-based travel consultant that helps arrange travel to Cuba, said the announcement on Tuesday would be good news for the travel industry.
"A lot of Americans want to go to Cuba and are curious about the country," she said.