The door opens for more Cuba travel
By Mimi Whitefield
Travel providers and other groups are scrambling to secure licenses and
organize people-to-people exchanges in Cuba after a decision by the U.S.
government to relax restrictions and allow a wider variety of Americans
to visit the Caribbean island for the first time in 7 1/2 years.
So far, the Treasury Department has issued nearly 30 licenses to
organizations that say they will provide "purposeful travel,'' which
will allow Americans to reach out to everyday Cubans in "support of
their desire to freely determine their country's future.''
Although Cuba-Americans can now travel freely to the island if they
receive a visa from Cuba and travel is allowed for other Americans who
fall into a limited number of categories, the United States has barred
people-to-people visits since the end of 2003 when former President
George W. Bush reversed a policy begun during the Clinton administration.
Insight Cuba, a company that ran people-to-people exchanges prior to the
rollback on such travel, looks like it will be first with the new
people-to-people exchanges. It plans to send its first four groups to
Cuba on August 11.
Groups ranging from the Harvard Alumni Association to luxury travel
provider Abercrombie & Kent — it pitches its trip as "Cuba: The
Forbidden Isle Revealed'' — to Witness for Peace also are ready for Cuba
There seems to be plenty of demand.
The Oct. 26-Nov. 1 Harvard trip, which promises to "unravel the richness
of Cuban culture,'' is waiting list only. A&K, which will be working
with the Foundation for Caribbean Studies — the nonprofit that actually
holds the license — began advertising last week for 13 trips it plans
between September and next April. All have sold out.
"We knew there would be interest, but this is incredible,'' said Jean
Fawcett, an A&K spokeswoman. "We're taking names for a wait list and are
planning to add more trips in 2012."
Witness for Peace says it will offer talk with "ordinary Cubans who will
tell about their achievements, challenges and daily struggles.'' Its
10-night-trip in December costs $1,550 — a relative bargain in the world
of people-to-people exchanges.
A&K's 10-night tours, in contrast, are priced from $4,325 double
occupancy and cover a wide swathe of Cuba, visiting Cienfuegos,
Trinidad, Havana and Matanzas.
A&K, which began as a safari outfitter in Kenya, promises its Cuba trips
will meet the same high standards its travelers have come to expect.
Travelers will stay on a club-level-type floor at the Hotel Nacional,
eat almost exclusively at paladares (home restaurants) whose menus have
been planned with A&K staff, travel in new air-conditioned motor coaches
with leather seats and go through VIP customs and immigration check-in,
But along the way, she said, there will be plenty of opportunities to
interact with Cubans. "We don't want people to feel like tourists. We
want this to be an authentic people-to-people exchange,'' Fawcett said.
As part of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, for decades the United States
has limited Americans from going to Cuba and spending money — although
there have been exceptions for travelers such as Cuban-Americans,
journalists, those on professional and academic research trips and
people on humanitarian and religious missions.
In announcing the new travel policy, the Obama administration said
people-to-people exchanges would support civil society as well as the
free flow of information.
This year, it also loosened regulations for educational and religious
trips to Cuba allowing universities, schools and religious organizations
to make trips without seeking licenses from Washington. A Florida law,
however, bars public schools and universities from funding Cuba trips
but other students may go as long as they receive credit.
The new rules are not playing well with South Florida's Cuban-American
Congressional delegation. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and Rep. David Rivera,
both Republicans, have introduced amendments that reset the Cuban travel
policy to the more restrictive regulations of the Bush administration,
not only eliminating people-to-people exchanges but also barring
Cuban-Americans from visiting more than once every three years for
family reunifications. Remittances also would be limited to $1,200 and
the definition of who qualifies as family tightened up.
President Obama has threatened a veto.
Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote a letter
to Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control after she saw a travel
agency quoted in a Louisiana newspaper saying the "first wave of pure
tourists from America will hit the friendly skies Aug. 11.'' She called
that an "egregious misrepresentation'' of the travel guidelines and
wanted to know what OFAC was doing to prevent or correct such activity
by travel agents.
OFAC issued an advisory Monday saying it was aware of media
misstatements giving the impression that the "U.S. now allows for
virtually unrestricted travel to Cuba.''
It reminded travelers that there are regulations governing such travel,
including spending limits and a prohibition on buying any souvenirs
except for informational materials.
Travel organizations that have received licenses say Treasury has been
strict, sometimes asking for additional details and definitions, and
insisting that there be meaningful interactions between Cubans and
"These trips are highly structured. We spend no time at the beaches and
will be concentrating on historic sites,'' said Burt Altman, a retired
professor who with his wife Norma will be directing an April 2012 tour
for Learning in Retirement, a program geared for retired or semi-retired
people that is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.
One of the stipulations of the license, he said, was that "people would
be kept busy at all times." Most of the people-to-people trips will
leave from Miami and don't include airfare.
Insight Cuba, which will take 16 people per group, sent out its
application for a license the day guidelines were issued in the Federal
Register in January. "We knew something would change, so we kept up our
relationships in Cuba,'' said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba. "It
was like lifting the hood of a car that had been in the garage and
figuring out what needed to be done to get the trips going again.''
Among the attractions on Insight Cuba's eight-day music and art
experience, which starts at $2,495, are a meeting with Afro-Cuban
artists, a visit to Egrem, Cuba's largest recording label, and salsa
In the next year, Popper said, Insight Cuba is offering 130 departure
dates and hopes to take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans to Cuba.
If no restrictions are placed on the new people-to-people policy,
thousands more Americans are expected to travel to Cuba this year and next.
Last year 63,000 U.S. citizens visited, according to the Cuban
government. But that number pales compared to the number of
Cuban-American travelers, who are counted separately from other U.S.
visitors to the island.
Air charter providers to Cuba estimate around 320,000 Cuban-Americans
visited in 2010 — although some of those travelers made multiple trips.
By next year, the face of travel to Cuba could look quite different,
said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters.
It's too early to estimate the numbers of travelers on people-to-people
exchanges, Guild said, but he expects academic travel to become a "large
category.'' Already, he said, Marazul has requests from two dozen
schools for trips in January and February.
And he expects Cuban-American travel to continue to grow with as many as
375,000 to 400,000 people making trips in 2011.