Sunday, February 19, 2012

Legal travel by Americans to Cuba comes at high price

Originally published Saturday, February 18, 2012 at 7:02 PM

Legal travel by Americans to Cuba comes at high price

Tours for legal travel to Cuba are selling out quickly. Travel companies
are planning for 2013, but the outcome of the November presidential
election makes next year uncertain.

By Carol Pucci

Seattle Times travel writer

For more information on government-authorized travel to Cuba, see

Anyone who's looked into a legal way to visit Cuba under the Obama
administration's new "people-to-people" provisions will relate to this
Seattle Times reader's concerns.

"The only legal way I have found is to join some grossly overpriced tour
group, and be herded around to very select sights," he said in an email
to me. "The prices for these trips ($4,000 plus for a week) appear to be
two or three times what they should be."

He's partially right, at least about the costs.

With a 50-year-old U.S. financial and trade embargo still in place, most
Americans legally can't book a flight on a discount airline and reserve
a $20 room in a family home as many Canadians and Europeans do.

With a few exceptions for students, journalists, aid workers and some
others, going to Communist-run Cuba means joining one of the new
cultural and educational tours licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Many trips sold out quickly. Tour companies are planning more for 2013,
but the outcome of the November presidential election makes next year

"It's certainly very much on our radar," says Justin Brown program
director for National Geographic Expeditions, whose trips average $500
per person per day, not including airfare to and from Cuba. "If
(President) Obama is not re-elected, there's a decent chance these might
go away."

The result: "Cuba is being inundated right now," says Malia Everette of
San Francisco's Global Exchange, and Cuban government tour operators
charge U.S. groups a premium.

Global Exchange, a nonprofit human-rights organization, runs a variety
of "Reality Tours" under a different type of license geared toward
professionals doing research in fields such as architecture, dance,
agriculture and health care.

Not everyone can qualify, but those who do go for about $260 a day,
including airfare to and from Havana. That's much less than most of the
"people-to-people" tours, but still more than you'd spend traveling on
your own.

No beach time

Whatever the tour, examine the itinerary carefully. If your dream is to
explore Cuba's beaches or bike its back roads, these trips are not for you.

"You're going to be interacting with Cuban people where they live and
work," says Stacie Fasola of Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) "You're
going to learn about the country. Not just see it, but learn about it."

I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange in November, then spent five
days touring on my own. Some advice:

• Consider cutting costs by traveling with a nonprofit group, museum,
university or professional group. Road Scholar programs are open to
anyone, and Global Exchange took 700 Americans to Cuba last year.
Locally, Dr. Sarah Reichard, director of the University of Washington
Botanic Gardens, is leading a group on a 12-day trip in late February.

• Ask for details on how your tour operator plans to provide you with
authentic interactions with Cuban people, a challenge when it comes to
group travel. Many of the tours include the same stops, such as a visit
to Callejón de Hammel — an Afro-Cuban community project known for its
street art and lively rumba performances, but overrun with tourists and
people selling CDs and asking for money.

• Expect comfortable government-owned hotels with pools, but don't be
disappointed if your group stays in a modern high-rise. Canadian and
European groups tend to get first crack at historic Havana Vieja's (Old
Havana's) classic hotels favored by writers such as Ernest Hemingway and
Graham Greene.

• Familiarize yourself with Cuba's dual currency system. You'll be
exchanging dollars for convertible pesos (CUCs), a "hard currency" worth
$1 each, minus a 10 percent exchange tax, a tit-for-tat for the U.S.
embargo against Cuba. I avoided the 10-percent tax by bringing Canadian

One of the hardest concepts for outsiders to grasp is that most Cubans
are paid a government salary of about $20 per month, earned in the local
currency, called pesos Cubanos or CUPs (worth about 4 cents each).
Education, housing and health care are free. CUPs buy the basics:
cooking oil, cheap meals, coffee cut with pea flour.

But much of what the average Cuban wants and needs — drinkable coffee,
washing machines, materials to fix up their homes — is only available to
those who can pay in hard currency. (Tourism and money sent by relatives
in the U.S. are the main sources).

To get a sense of everyday Cuban life:

• Tip in convertibles, but for a truly local experience, change $5 into
pesos Cubanos, and enter government-subsidized Cuba. Buy a 4-cent
ice-cream cone. Or patronize one of the fledgling entrepreneurs selling
ice cream and pastries for pennies or pizza from their kitchen windows.

• Use your free time to get out on your own. Walk through a neighborhood
like Havana Centro, where kids play ball in the crumbling streets. Stop
for a 50-cent beer at the makeshift bar set up in John Lennon Park, then
walk across the street and have a $10 dinner (hard currency) on the
terrace of a restored mansion, home to the French friendship association.

• One of my best experiences was hiring a bicycle taxi one warm evening
in Cienfuegos for dinner at a privately run restaurant in the family
home of a local nurse and her chef husband. Four of us ate for $30,
mojitos included.

• Learn about Cuba's changing economy and differing views about life
under Fidel Castro (Cuba's revolutionary leader, who stepped down
because of ill health) and Raul Castro (the current president). Follow
blogs by Cuban activists on Among the writers
is Yoani Sanchez, author of Havana Real, whose blog is translated into
English by Mary Jo Porter of Seattle.

Contact Carol Pucci:

On Twitter @carolpucci.

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