First direct flights between US and Cuba taking off

US travel service starts offering weekly charter between New York and Havana, despite ongoing US ban on Cuba tourism.

Cuba flights
Cuba Travel Services has started offering a weekly Tuesday charter between John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana [Reuters]

The first direct charter flights between New York City and Cuba are now taking off.

A US-based travel agency, Cuba Travel Services, on Tuesday announced the weekly charter between John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana in one of the first moves after the US government’s recent decision to ease travel restrictions.

In January, US President Barack Obama announced it would be easing the restrictions, however, despite improving relations, tourism is still banned. 

US travelers must still declare a purpose that fits into one of the 12 approved categories, including family visits, government work and journalism.

But most visitors no longer need to apply for a special license and wait for US government approval.

Obama reset Cuba policy on December 17, opting for engagement after more than five decades of US hostility towards the island nation’s communist government.

Washington and Havana held 18 months of secret talks before announcing they would re-establish diplomatic ties and exchange prisoners.

Obama has loosened the trade embargo with a range of measures designed to increase economic ties with Cuba and increase the number of Cubans who do not depend on the communist state for their livelihoods.

The Obama administration says removing barriers to US travel, remittances and exports to Cuba is a tactical change that supports the United States’ unaltered goal of reforming Cuba’s single-party political system and centrally planned economy.

Cuba has said it welcomes the measures but has no intention of changing its system.