Legal trips to Cuba made easier for Americans
- Submitted by: manso
- Politics and Government
- 07 / 17 / 2011
By Michelle Higgins. New York Times.07/16/2011 12:00:00 PM PDT
Always wanted to visit Cuba? Well, now you can -- legally.
Thanks to policy changes by President Barack Obama earlier this year designed to encourage more contact between Americans and citizens of the Communist-ruled island, the Treasury Department once again is granting so-called "people-to-people" licenses, which greatly expand travel opportunities for Cuba-bound visitors.
The licenses, created under President Bill Clinton in 1999, stopped being issued in 2003 under travel restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush. Subsequently, the number of travelers from the U.S. visiting Cuba legally dropped from more than 200,000 in 2003 to less than 50,000 in 2004, according to estimates by Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters in North Bergen, N.J., among the largest U.S. organizers of trips to Cuba. The new changes, which come on top of loosened restrictions for Cubans and Cuban-Americans visiting relatives in the country, are expected to push the number of travelers visiting Cuba this year to 450,000.
"We estimate 375,000 to 400,000 Cuban Americans will visit this year and another 50,000 in other categories of legal travel," said Guild.
To be clear, it is still illegal for ordinary American vacationers to hop on a plane bound for Cuba, which has been under a U.S. economic embargo for nearly 50 years. True, plenty have dodged the restrictions -- and continue to do so -- by flying there from another country such as Mexico or Canada (for Americans, traveling to Cuba is technically not illegal, but it might as well be because the United States prohibits its citizens from spending money in Cuba, with exceptions for students, journalists, Cuban-Americans and others with legal reasons to travel there).
And while Washington also has expanded licensing for educational groups traveling to Cuba by loosening requirements, travelers joining an educational trip still must receive credit toward a degree.
But the new people-to-people measures make it easier for U.S. citizens who do not have special status as working journalists or scholars to visit Cuba legally, so long as they go with a licensed operator.
"All a U.S. citizen has to do is sign up for an authorized program and they can go to Cuba. It's as simple as that," said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, a travel company that took more than 3,000 Americans to Cuba between 1999 and 2003, and was among the tour operators to apply for a license under the new rules earlier this year. It received its license at the end of June and has planned 135 trips of three, seven or eight nights over the next year.
In all, only eight companies had been issued people-to-people licenses by the end of June, according to the Treasury Department. Thirty-five applications were still pending.
The trips aren't your typical Caribbean vacation. Rather, the focus is on meeting local citizens and learning about the culture, not beach hopping and mojito-swilling. Days are filled with busy itineraries that may include visiting orphanages or speaking with musicians or community leaders. Guidelines published by the Treasury Department say the tours must "have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba."
But besides the mingling, the trips -- which can range from $1,800 for a long weekend in Havana to more than $4,000 for a week -- usually include opportunities to visit historic sites such as Old Havana, or, for longer itineraries, a visit to Cienfuegos, a picturesque city in the south.
In terms of hotels, "service may not be quite as good and the Internet connection is incredibly slow and frustrating," said Janet Moore, owner of Distant Horizons, an authorized travel-service provider to Cuba, who has been helping organizations apply for people-to-people licenses. But, she said, "they have all the facilities you'd expect: swimming pools, little gyms.
And there are a lot of very good private restaurants."
Don't expect to stock up on those coveted Cuban cigars, however. Travelers aren't allowed to bring cigars or rum back to the States, according to the Treasury Department.
Demand for Cuba is so strong that tour operators say that many trips already have long waiting lists.
Learning in Retirement, an educational program associated with the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse, which is offering a 10-day people-to-people trip in April, said more than 65 people already have expressed interest for its 35 spots. "That's just through word-of-mouth," said Burt Altman, a retired professor who organized the trip. "We haven't even put out the itinerary."
"It's the forbidden fruit," said Popper of Insight Cuba. "It's 50 years of pent-up demand for a country that 75 percent of Americans really, really want to travel to."