Traveling to Cuba just got a lot easier for the Bay Area.
Since 1963 it has been all but illegal to travel to the tiny island nation. But since President Barack Obama has taken office, travel restrictions have been easing.
Now in part to the lobbying of Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, one Bay Area airport will begin offering direct flights to Cuba as early as the end of the year.
"I have always believed that people-to-people diplomacy is the one of the most effective ways for strengthening ties between two nations," Congresswoman Barbara Lee said in a statement. "I am hopeful that (this) announcement will lead to many more Bay Area residents taking advantage of the opportunity to directly engage with the Cuban people."
The Oakland International Airport requested authorization to offer non-stop travel to Cuba. Just two weeks ago, the United States Customs and Border Protection approved the request.
Now Oakland joins a small list of airports -- that includes Los Angeles, New York and Miami -- that offer chartered flights to Cuba and it becomes the only Bay Area airport to offer the flight.
"I think there is a lot of pent up interest of people who want to travel to that country and didn’t know how," Oakland International Airport Spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said. "We certainly thunk as the word gets out there will be a lot of demand for this and we certainly so thrilled to open up that part of the world to the Bay Area.”
Still the approval does not mean that anyone can travel to Cuba. Potential tourists are limited to academic, humanitarian and religious groups, as well as journalists.
Americans looking to travel to Cuba from Oakland International Airport will have to apply through Los Angeles-based Cuba Travel Service, which currently charters 10 flights to Cuba a week and is partnering with Oakland International on the project.
Working with a licensed carrier and travel service provider by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, such as Cuba Travel Service, was just one of the requirements the airport had to meet before being approved as a gateway to Cuba.
Oakland also had to show that the airport was properly equipped and staffed to handle international flights and it had to align itself with a travel partner.
Tickets for the six hour flight, which will most likely land in Havana, will begin selling at the end of the summer and the first of weekly charter flights out of Oakland will begin flying at the end of the year.