By Ron Orozco - The Fresno Bee
Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Shrouded in mystery and off-limits to U.S. travelers for decades, Cuba
has become an appealing destination for many Americans, including
Fresnans, who now have the opportunity to visit the Caribbean island.
The Fresno Chamber of Commerce is planning a trip to Cuba for nine days
in June. A dozen people are signed up, but officials expect the number
to reach 20 or more.
"Where it used to be one of the great destinations for most Americans,
it's been a country that got sealed up," says Al Smith, president and
CEO of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce. "It's always been kind of a taboo
location, where we haven't been allowed there."
In 1961, the southwest coast of Cuba was the site of a failed Bay of
Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed exiles to bring down Fidel Castro's
Communist government. It escalated into the Cuban Missile Crisis when
Soviet missiles in Cuba pushed the world close to nuclear war.
American policy toward Cuba has been frozen since 1962, when President
John F. Kennedy's administration broadened a U.S. trade embargo. Since
2009, however, President Obama has begun easing travel restrictions for
U.S. residents wanting to visit family members in Cuba and for students
wanting to study there. Last year, he began allowing people-to-people
organizations to visit after being restricted for seven years.
Fresno Chamber of Commerce plans trip to Cuba
Only international travel agencies that are issued a specific license by
the U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, can
arrange trips to visit Cuba legally.
Chamber Explorations, based in Redondo Beach, has a license and asked
the Fresno Chamber of Commerce to be among the first people-to-people
groups to go because of its history in international travel. The local
chamber has hosted trips to China, Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
"A window of opportunity has presented itself," Smith says. "Who knows
what tomorrow can bring, so you grab it now."
He says there remains a lot of appeal about Cuba.
"I just think sometimes a new vista opens up -- one you've heard about,
one with historical relevance, one with a lot of mystery surrounding it,
like Cuba -- and it gets you excited," he says. "It's a new and unique
The Fresno group will visit:
-- Havana, the capital city where streets are filled with automobiles
dating to the 1950s.
-- Trinidad, one of the country's oldest cities, founded by the
Spaniards in 1514.
-- Partagas Cigar Factory, one of the oldest cigar brands in the world,
established in 1845.
-- Pinar del Rio, known for its stunning scenery with mogotes,
prehistoric-looking flat-top mountains and tobacco plantations.
-- Ernest Hemingway's farm, Finca La Vigia, property that includes the
home where he and his wife, Martha, lived for 21 years.
-- Cojimer Fishing Village, made famous by Hemingway's novel, "The Old
Man and the Sea," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953.
The trip begins June 12.
The Fresno Chamber of Commerce's mission is to promote business and
enhance the economic and cultural well-being of Fresno County residents.
"Obviously, when you go to some of these destinations, there's the
business-to-business component, at least to meet someone in business,
and you enjoy the economy and the sites," Smith says.
You don't have to be a Fresno Chamber of Commerce member to go on the
Cuba trip, which costs just under $4,000. There is no limit on the
number of people who can sign up. For details, call (559) 495-4801.
The Fresno Chamber of Commerce trip is not the only way to visit Cuba.
You can go through people-to-people arrangements, but it can be
Joanne Lippert, an independent contractor who works at Lewis Travel in
Fresno, says she would work through Tauck, an international travel
company headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., that is licensed to offer trips
to Cuba. The company isn't allowed to publicize information.
"It's sort of secret," she says. "It's also expensive -- several
thousand dollars for a week. You're not allowed to go wandering all over."
Despite the hurdles, Lippert says Cuba has appeal to many travelers.
"Curiosity is one thing; we were not allowed to go there for so long,"
she says. "It's fascinating because nobody has been there. People are
looking for a destination where they haven't been. They want to have a
personal experience -- and not just stand there and look."
Keith Johnson, owner of Bulldog Travel in Fresno, says he has concerns
about recommending Cuba to travelers for leisure.
Fresno Chamber of Commerce plans trip to Cuba
"It wouldn't be at the top of my list for us," he says, adding that Cuba
is without a U.S. embassy. U.S. citizens needing assistance in Cuba, he
says, work through the Swiss Embassy.
"The Swiss working on our behalf isn't so great," he says. "You want to
have your government representative in the country you're visiting."
Johnson says he hopes the Fresno Chamber of Commerce group fares well
with its business connections in Cuba.
"If they could pave the way with some mutual commerce interest, it would
be more welcoming for U.S. travelers to go there," he says.
Dan Ronquillo, who was a Fresno City Council member representing
District 3 from 1995-2003, is going on the Fresno chamber's trip with
his wife, Margarette. The couple has visited Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica
and Mexico. He says Cuba appeals to them.
"It has been off-limits for so many years," he says. "I thought,
'Wouldn't this be great?' where everything has been okayed, instead of
trying to go through the back door.
"It is an interesting culture, and I like Cuban music. I thought it
would be great to see Cuba traditionally."