When John Kerry, while attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum hosted by Burma, stayed at the Lake Garden Hotel, a posh French-managed resort in the country’s capital of Nay Pyi Taw, he probably wasn’t expecting it to be a big deal. Of course, that’s probably because no one at State realized that the resort was owned by Burmese tycoon U Zaw Zaw who is on OFAC’s SDN List. Sometimes you really are smarter when you stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

The State Department, however, rushed in to try to put out the public relations fires.

“You can stay at this hotel no matter who you are, you just can’t do business with it. So if you wanted to sell them towels, you could not do that. But you could stay there,” [State Department spokesman Marie] Harf explained.

That’s a fairly clumsy invocation of the travel exemption contained in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”), 50 U.S.C. § 1702(b)(4), which exempts from sanctions “any transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from any country.” Although many exemptions do not extend to dealings with SDN, this statutorily based exemption does. (In case you’re wondering, the travel ban to Cuba is not affected by this exemption because those sanctions are imposed not under IEEPA but under the Trading with the Enemy Act.)

Of course, the problem here is this: what is “ordinarily incident” to international travel? Certainly, Kerry staying in the room, ordering a little room service, buying a miniature of vodka from the room’s minibar, and perhaps even watching a pay-per-view movie would fall within this. But suppose (purely hypothetically, of course) that Secretary Kerry decided to pay for a massage in the hotel spa? Is that “ordinarily incident” to international travel? Or paying the resort its standard greens fee for a round of golf?  As is the case in most sanctions matters, there is no clear answer here and no answers from OFAC.  That Holiday Inn Express is looking smarter and smarter.