Havana: Journey to once-forbidden land
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 08 / 01 / 2011
Posted: July 31, 2011 - 12:52am. By K.C. SUMMERS. Special to The Washington Post. Like many Americans, Jamie and Kirsy Blietz were thrilled when the Obama administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba for U.S. citizens in January. So thrilled, in fact, that the suburban Washington couple decided that the formerly forbidden island would be the perfect setting for their 20th wedding anniversary celebration next June.
No doubt it would. But amid all the hoopla about U.S. citizens now being able to travel to Cuba legally, it's important to keep one thing in mind: You can't just pop over for a visit the way you can to, say, Jamaica or the Bahamas. The United States's financial embargo against the island remains firmly in effect, meaning that all American visitors must travel with special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Students, aid workers, full-time researchers, journalists and a few other categories of travelers qualify for the licenses. Tourists do not.
Of course, many Americans have skirted these restrictions for years by flying to Cuba from Canada, Mexico or another third country. A Treasury Department spokesman emphasized that this practice remains illegal and that violators face civil penalties and criminal prosecution on their return to the United States.
The new "people-to-people" provision, which allows U.S. citizens to take educational or cultural tours with a licensed travel provider, makes things easier. "Any U.S. individual may travel with one of these licensed organizations," the spokesman explained in an e-mail, "provided they comply with all terms of the license -- most importantly, that they engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba."
Translation: No lolling on the beach all day. But all the P2P itineraries we checked include visits to basic tourist attractions and, more to the point, allow for downtime each day, when participants can wander around on their own. To date, more than a dozen companies in the United States have been granted licenses, and dozens more await approval.
Among the first to apply, and the first to receive its license: Insight Cuba (800-450-2822, www.insightcuba.com), a New Rochelle, N.Y., tour operator with years of experience in Cuba. It offered cultural exchange trips from 1999, when the Clinton administration initiated the original people-to-people program, to 2004, when the Bush administration shellacked it. The company is currently offering six itineraries, with 130 departures scheduled through September 2012. Activities include salsa dance lessons, cooking classes, visits to schools and other person-to-person events, both planned and spontaneous.
The response from U.S. travelers has been "amazing, overwhelming," said spokesman Savina Perez. "There's a huge demand for travel to Cuba, even from people who wouldn't necessarily travel in groups." (Tours are limited to 16 people.)
Participants must stick with the prescribed program during the day -- by law -- but there's some downtime in the evenings, Perez said, when folks are free to walk around town, visit restaurants or go to clubs. Forget about beach time, although you can get a taste of the salt air and sea breezes by promenading with the locals along Havana's famous Malecon (seawall and boulevard) at night. Hey, it's educational.
Prices range from $1,695 per person double for a three-night Weekend in Havana to $3,795 per person double for an eight-night Cuban Music and Art Experience tour of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo. Other itineraries focus on colonial Trinidad, the Bay of Pigs, jazz and scenic Pinar del Rio. Included in the cost: lodging in four- and five-star hotels, all meals, ground transportation, internal flights (depending on the tour), admission fees, guides and travel insurance. Not included: round-trip air. From Miami to Havana on special charter flights, the cost averages $450.