Why Can We Visit Kim Jung Il but Not Old Havana?

07/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chances are, if you are an American citizen, you can pack your bags for a propaganda-filled tour of North Korea but you cannot order up a daiquiri at El Floridita, the bar Ernest Hemingway made famous in Old Havana. Cuba, it turns out, is the only country on earth that U.S. citizens are largely prohibited from visiting.

Americans are free to travel to countries like Iran, North Korea and Sudan, assuming they can get a visa from their bad actor of choice, but cannot hop on a plane to Cuba thanks to U.S. sanctions. Perhaps it is time to rethink our approach and open Cuba to American tourists.

There is no shortage of good reasons for allowing Americans to travel to Cuba. By far the best is that the United States should not be in the business of restricting the right of its citizens to choose where to travel. As President Reagan liked to say, America is the shining city on a hill and the world's eyes remain focused upon us. Limiting the freedom of American citizens in an effort to advance the cause of liberty in Cuba is an Orwellian anomaly in U.S. foreign policy that ought to be corrected immediately. We undermine the cause of freedom abroad when we restrict it here at home.

Americans are extraordinary ambassadors to the world. Restricting travel to Cuba severely limits the positive impact Americans can have abroad through everyday activities and interactions. Travel promotes understanding, respect and shared values, which is good for Cubans and Americans alike. "Travel," observed Mark Twain, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts."

Boost to ordinary Cubans, travel industry

Travel by American citizens would directly benefit the Cuban people. American travelers would help put more money in the hands of ordinary Cubans who work in the hospitality industry in Cuba. While some tourist dollars would undoubtedly benefit the Castro regime, many more would help ordinary Cuban citizens provide for themselves and their families.

From a business perspective, restoring tourist travel to Cuba would benefit U.S. airlines, cruise ships and tour operators and could create thousands of jobs in the travel industry immediately. Estimates suggest up to a million travelers could visit Cuba annually from the United States once restrictions are removed. Resuming travel to Cuba could potentially boost demand for certain American products like beef, soft drinks, wine and potato chips, which are permitted to be exported to Cuba under an exemption to U.S. sanctions.

Current travel restrictions also place a tremendous burden on the same taxpayer dollars that are allocated to investigate al Qaeda and keep international terrorists and criminals out of the United States. A 2007 U.S. Government report concluded that inspections of travelers arriving from Cuba may strain efforts to keep out terrorists and criminals from entering the country. Eliminating the travel ban would allow the U.S. government to redeploy its resources to tackle more urgent pursuits.

Send a positive signal internationally

Finally, changing course on U.S. Cuba policy would boost America's image in the world, particularly in Latin America. Leaders of Argentina, Brazil and other nations have made clear to President Obama that a new U.S. approach to Cuba is a priority for the hemisphere. Removing travel restrictions is an easy way to send a positive signal internationally.

Congress has introduced legislation known as the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would restore the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba. President Obama should make clear his support for this effort, and leaders in Congress should ensure that the legislation is voted on this year.

Travel writer Bill Bryson once commented that, "I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything." Decades of restrictions on travel to Cuba have left most Americans with little knowledge of the island, which sits just 90 miles from the shores of the United States.

It is time to unlock the sense of wonder for American citizens and end the ban on travel to Cuba.

This article is cross-posted at blog.opencuba.org.