First direct US-to-Cuba flights flying out of Kennedy Airport in Queens

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

WASHINGTON (WABC) -- In spite of slowly improving relations with Cuba, pure tourism is still banned. But starting Tuesday, New York's first regularly scheduled direct charter flights to the communist nation are flying from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Sun Country Airlines 8891 departed Havana at 10:10 a.m. and is set to arrive at JFK at 1:08 p.m. The first flight to Cuba is scheduled to take off at 3 p.m.

Only a dozen or so categories of travel are allowed, including family visits, government work and journalism.

The company Cuba Travel Services is charging $849 for a round trip ticket, and the price includes airfare, Cuban medical insurance and US departure taxes, all necessary fees for what is still regulated travel. The jet carries up to 145 people.

In January, the Obama administration announced it would be easing travel restrictions and opening a wide range of new export opportunities with Cuba.

The series of executive branch moves, taken together, have had the effect of punching a large hole in America's half-century-old embargo, although only Congress has the authority to fully end the 54-year embargo.

Obama argued at the time that "these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked." The new spirit of cooperation emerged after 18 months of secret talks that culminated in the exchange of imprisoned spies and the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years.

Less than a month after the Cold War foes agreed to end their enmity, the Commerce and Treasury departments unveiled new rules Thursday permitting U.S. citizens to visit Cuba without special permits.

Most U.S. travelers still will be required to go on supervised group trips, but now virtually any U.S. company or organization can offer such trips without the paperwork and inspections that discouraged past expansion of travel to Cuba. Some tour operators, already seeing unprecedented interest in legal travel to Cuba, expect some tourists to simply ignore the restrictions.

American companies also now will be permitted to export telephones, computers and Internet technology, and to send supplies to private Cuban firms. However, Cuban authorities have said nothing about the restrictions they might impose on U.S. products entering a country that has long frustrated foreign investors with red tape and tapped-out infrastructure.

The changes are the latest step in President Barack Obama's plan to rebuild relations with Cuba after a history marred by suspicion, espionage and conflict. The new regulations come three days after U.S. officials confirmed the release of 53 political prisoners Cuba had promised to free.