New U.S. rules promise legal Cuba travel for many
By PETER ORSI
HAVANA -- The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within
reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans
wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from
Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to
Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling
the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country
and risk the Treasury Department's wrath.
"This is travel to Cuba for literally any American," said Tom Popper,
director of Insight Cuba, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba
before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.
But it won't all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S.
visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or
attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under
U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.
So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the
Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush
administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to
evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.
Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm
about the new policy.
"President Obama and the administration continuously say they don't want
more tourism and that's not what they're trying to do. But that's
exactly what's happening," said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was
born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that
more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.
"The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian
regime," he said.
Insight Cuba is one of at least a dozen travel groups that have applied
for a license to operate on the island since details of the change were
issued in April. If permission comes from Washington, it could begin
trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers,
he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.
In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where
participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions
at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums.
Architecture aficionados could explore Havana's stately, but crumbling
"Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba - legally!" trumpeted a
recent press release for one would-be tour operator.
"You can go on forever," said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who
represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the
trips. "The subject matter is virtually limitless."
Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni
associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated
Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.
Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from
2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.
Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors
from the United States annually, though most are expected to be
Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That
makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting
Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.
Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.