Eased travel to Cuba not without hurdles
By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
December 6, 2012 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
- Legal travel to Cuba has been off limits to Americans for decades
- "Person-to-person" trips have been greenlighted by the Obama
- Visitors are required to engage in continuous educational exchange
- Some operators have had difficulty renewing licenses to offer tours
Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Louis and Bonnie Waterer are spending their
retirement filling up their passports, one stamp at a time.
"There are a bunch of people who are trying to visit 100 countries
before they die," Louis explained. "This is number 92 for us."
Country No. 92 for the Waterers is Cuba.
But up until a few years ago, even for intrepid travelers like the
Waterers, visiting Cuba would have been close to impossible.
After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba went from being a favorite
getaway for Americans to a forbidden destination. Diplomatic relations
and direct travel between the United States and Cuba were cut off. U.S.
citizens spending money on the island faced hefty fines for "trading
with the enemy."
But after decades of false starts, the Obama administration has
reinstituted legal travel to Cuba as a way to reach out to the Cuban people.
It's called "people-to-people" travel, and like nearly everything
involving Cuba, controversy and politics are involved.
"Each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange
activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the
travelers and individuals in Cuba," U.S. Treasury Department guidelines
for people-to-people travel read.
And while the policy has kicked off a debate over what is a "meaningful"
exchange, a flood of tour operators has entered the still uncertain
world of travel to Cuba.
Americans interested in visiting Cuba are offered free CDs of Cuban
music and itineraries that include welcome parties thrown by Committees
for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood watch groups that were
created with the original intention of thwarting a U.S. invasion.
U.S. visitors coming via people-to-people trips shouldn't plan on too
much beach time.
Under the Treasury guidelines, tour operators have to plan nearly every
moment of the trip, and "people-to-people" travel, at least in theory,
excludes relaxing by the pool with umbrella-topped beverages.
Most Americans heading to Cuba go there with the desire to make a
connection with a people they have been prevented from having any
contact with for generations, according to Tom Popper, president of tour
operator Insight Cuba.
"The fact that we are bringing Americans and Cubans together is an
incredible thing," Popper said. "It's a travel experience for the
Americans, it's an incredible thing for Cubans. Some people in parts of
Cuba that we go to, they have never met an American before."
People-to-people travel isn't cheap or easy, though.
A four-night "Weekend in Havana" trip from Insight Cuba, without
airfare, sells for about $2,000 per person.
Popper said the high cost of the trips is due to the fact that operators
need to send guides with their groups to make sure they comply with the
travel regulations, and that renewing the yearly U.S. licenses can take
months of navigating a complicated bureaucracy.
This summer, many tour operators wondered if people-to-people travel was
ending altogether, after the Treasury Department started denying
licenses to operators or simply not responding to renewal requests.
Several tour operators contacted by CNN said that the process may have
gotten bogged down by the fact that the renewal application is now close
to 200 pages and requires that the operators explain how each stop on
the itinerary fosters greater friendship between Americans and Cubans.
"You are doing what you are supposed to be doing and they are changing
the rules as we go. The guidelines are so vague," said Michael Sykes,
who ran the now-defunct Cuba Cultural Tours.
Sykes laid off four employees after his license expired in July and he
was denied a renewal.
"The language is so cryptic and so bureaucratic," he said. "Your average
Joe isn't able to do this -- you have to understand the secret language."
Sykes has now hired what he calls a "bloody expensive" lawyer to guide
him through the process, and he is hopeful that he will be back to
planning trips to Cuba by the end of the year.
Some of the tour operators said they thought the logjam of licenses was
caused by political pressure, particularly from Sen. Marco Rubio,
R-Florida, who is Cuban-American and a fierce critic of the trips
"What these trips are all about is tourism -- it's tourism," Rubio said
on the Senate floor last year. "The reason why this is problematic is it
gives money to the Castro government."
Jeff Braunger, a Treasury Department official in charge of the Cuba
licensing program, said in an e-mail that the department has approved
licenses for 180 tour operators while making sure they are complying
with the law.
"We revised the license application criteria to stress to applicants the
seriousness of the requirements of the people-to-people licensing
program, in part because of reports we received concerning travel under
the licenses," Braunger wrote.
But some tour operators said travel to Cuba has become more cumbersome
and expensive but is not policed any better. One tour organizer
mentioned a recent licensed trip offered by a competitor that included a
day of scuba diving.
"It's supposed to be people-to-people, not people-to-fish," the operator
And there are also complications on the Cuban side, tour operators said.
Last month, the Cuban government abruptly canceled the landing rights
for two of the U.S. charter companies operating flights to the island,
reportedly over a payment dispute.
But most of the tour operators said the headaches are worth the
opportunity to get in early on American tourism to Cuba, which is sure
to explode when the embargo is eventually lifted.
"We are back in operations and hope to stay that way," Insight Cuba
president Tom Popper said. Popper had to lay off 22 people as he waited
several months for the company's license renewal, but he has since added
17 back to his staff.
On a trip organized by Insight Cuba last month, 12 Americans spent their
morning speaking with Cubans at a neighborhood art project.
Michael Pettit, a lawyer from Charleston, South Carolina, said he was
struck by Cuba's many contrasts during his first people-to-people trip
"I love Cuba," he said. "The history, music, people, photography -- it's
The politics and uncertainty over continued travel between Cuba and the
United States persuaded Pettit to book another trip right away, he said.
"One of the reasons I came again is because you never know when you
might be able to come legally."