U.S. President Barack Obama intends to relax the Cuban travel policy, making it easier for students and religious and cultural groups to visit the Communist country, the White House has said.

“The President believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo (against Cuba), are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens,” it said.

“These steps build upon the President’s April 2009 actions to help reunite divided Cuban families; to facilitate greater telecommunications with the Cuban people; and to increase humanitarian flows to Cuba,” the White House said.

In a statement, it said Obama has directed that changes be made to regulations and policies governing: purposeful travel; non-family remittances; and US airports supporting licensed charter flights to and from Cuba.

These measures will increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities, it said.

According to the White House, to enhance contact with the Cuban people and support civil society through purposeful travel, including religious, cultural and educational travel, Obama has directed that regulations and policies governing purposeful travel be modified to allow religious organisations to sponsor religious travel to Cuba under a general license.

He has also directed to facilitate educational exchanges.

The move was both supported and opposed by the US lawmakers.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a Cuban immigrant, said the move to help those who live in Cuba would only aid the Cuban government.

“Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba,” she said. “These changes undermine US foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime.”

Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, welcomed the move. The policy will “open the way for the goodwill of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future,” he said in a statement.

“This is an important step. If governments cannot solve the problems between them, at least they should get out of the way and let citizens work toward finding solutions,” he said.

Senator Bob Menendez expressed his deep disappointed over the move to extend an economic life line to the Castro regime.

“This gift to the Castro brothers will provide the regime with the additional resources it needs to sustain its failing economy, while ordinary Cubans continue to struggle under the weight of more than 50 years of economic and political oppression,” he said.

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