Why are so many people hot to trot to Cuba? All sorts of reasons. “It was difficult to go there in the past, so there’s the novelty factor,” says Patrick Gallagher, Collette Vacations’ product manager for South America, Asia, Panama, and Cuba. “Travelers have also told me they want to see Cuba before it changes. Some remember or have heard stories about pre-revolution Cuba. They want to get into one of those classic cars in Havana and drive along the malecon to the Hotel Nacional for a sense of being in another time. And everyone wants to know how life in Cuba compares to what we hear in the media.”
However, the road to Havana, at least for U.S. citizens, has been bumpy. Although the embargo doesn’t forbid travel to Cuba, it does forbid spending money there, a deal-breaker unless you’re on a week-long fast. Some Americans have gotten around the embargo by sneaking into Cuba through a third country, but that involves risking a fine or even imprisonment.
travel to cuba: a charade?
In 2009, President Obama loosened the ban for Cuban-Americans, students, and missionaries; then, in 2011, he created the people-to-people program, authorizing the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to license tour operators whose trips served cultural/humanitarian purposes. Scores of companies obtained licenses, but then Senator Marco Rubio criticized people-to-people as a “charade” that allows conventional “tourism for Americans [who], at best, are curious about Cuba and, at worst, sympathize with the regime.” Subsequently, some industry executives say OFAC has toughened its requirements for licenses.
Gallagher, though, avoids finger-pointing. “There have been articles about OFAC delaying renewals and new licenses, [but] there is no way to confirm this, as OFAC does not release its list of people-to-people licensees,” he says.
one vast, poignant museum
Regardless of whether or not OFAC has purposefully cut back on issuing licenses, the bottom line for Adam Vaught, Cuba program director for GeoEx, is, “We had to alter our application and re-apply.” Was that difficult? “You have no idea.” But GeoEx has its license now, so it’s offering monthly Connecting with Cuba’s Living History tours. With stays in Havana, which Vaught calls “one vast, poignant museum,” plus either bucolic Viñales or colonial Trinidad, these tours include not only visits to great museums and landmarks, but also meetings with historians, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and rural Cubans.
“We have the ability to arrange genuine interactions with Cubans,” says Vaught, who leads some of the trips himself. “It’s fascinating to watch the participants gain understanding of the challenges Cubans face. Life is different there, more so than in any other place I’ve traveled.” The 7-night trip costs $5,680 dbl, plus $500 for air from Miami, and GeoEx participants stay at the Hotel Parque Central in Havana and Iberostar in Trinidad.
Collette Vacations offers two 8-night tours of Cuba. Heart of Cuba is based in Havana, with excursions to Viñales and historic Matanzas. Rediscover Cuba features hotel nights in Havana and Trinidad. “They both provide a variety of unique experiences, such as a visit to an orphanage run by nuns, and genuine people-to-people interactions,” says Gallagher. “We only work with select local guides [who] have a good understanding of our itinerary and passenger expectations.” Packages start at $3,749 and include 18 meals. The roundtrip flight from Miami costs $530, and the Cuban visa is an additional $50. Hotel stays on this tour include the Hotel Fifth Avenue in Havana and Hotel Las Brisas in Trinidad.
As of press time, OFAC had not completed its review of Collette Vacations’ license to continue its people-to-people program in 2013, but the company is confident the license will be renewed this month.