When news broke Washington and Havana would be renewing diplomatic relations, the phones at InsightCuba began ringing off the hook with Americans interested in traveling to the island.
InsightCuba and other people-to-people providers, which are licensed to organize trips to Cuba that promote engagement between Americans and the Cuban people, anticipate more travel. But some providers say even bigger changes are ahead — perhaps allowing authorized travelers to visit on their own rather than only on an organized tour.
“It’s all a bit tentative because Treasury hasn’t come up with the new travel regulations yet,” said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which has worked to end the U.S. embargo since 1985. “But it’s clear in the language of the president’s announcement they’re talking about every American, not just organizations. ”
McAuliff, who has organized people-to-people tours — the most recent in November — said he expects the whole process of Cuba travel will be shaken up and that the changes could make Cuba travel more accessible to a wider demographic of Americans.
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sent an email to those in the Cuban travel business last week saying the new regulations would be out in a matter of weeks. When Obama reauthorized people-to-people trips in early 2011, it took nearly four months to release the regulations, and the first people-to-people trips didn’t take off until that August.
Since then, Treasury has approved or renewed the licenses of 463 people-to-people operators, ranging from university alumni groups to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Elderhostel.
Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, said he expects the Cuban travel business to become far more competitive — with any travel agency that complies with the new regulations allowed to sell tickets.
He bases his interpretation on this paragraph in a White House Fact Sheet on the changes that mentions allowing travelers who fall within 12 categories to visit Cuba without seeking prior approval from the U.S. government:
“Travelers in the 12 categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law will be able to make arrangements through any service provider that complies with the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.”
In OFAC terminology, a general license means a traveler doesn’t need to seek prior approval from the U.S. government to travel if they self-certify they fall into one of the 12 categories.
“I think I’ve read that paragraph 150 times,” Popper said. “Travel to Cuba just got a whole lot easier.”
While Phil Peters, who heads the Cuba Research Center and also has a people-to-people license, agrees there will be great liberalization of travel to Cuba, he isn’t so sure about the interpretation that independent travel will be allowed.
“It’s possible, but it’s not clear,” he said. “There have been a lot of experiences where the government has issued general guidelines and then the actual regulations surprise you.”
While the U.S. permits those with family members in Cuba to travel freely to the island, most Americans can go to Cuba legally only by taking a people-to-people tour. And they’re not supposed to be vacations at the beach.
South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is wary of expanded travel. It’s “troubling because history has shown that many of these trips are purely for tourist purposes, which is supposed to be against U.S. law and in turn injects millions of dollars straight into the pockets of the Castro regime and the Cuban military,” she said.
She also finds “a blatant contradiction of policies when the Obama administration promotes more travel to Cuba while at the same time issuing travel advisories stating that the Castro regime can detain U.S. citizens at any time without an explanation.”
Robert Burke, a mathematician who retired from Rutgers University and now lives in Boston, was among Americans on people-to-people tours in Havana this week.
He said anyone who thinks those on the tours just go around looking at famous churches is wrong. “They bring us to people. I dare say we’ve had some very interesting views. They don’t sound like the government line,” he said. “We also heard from a retired diplomat who served in the U.S. He was much closer to the government view.”
Popper, meanwhile, is preparing to capitalize on all the interest in Cuba travel by expediting his plans to add new trips to Cuba.
“Everything just exploded” after Obama’s announcement, he said. “We’ve booked five times as many passengers as we normally do every day since.”
On Monday, he announced 70 additional departure dates for Cuba travel in 2015 and 2016.
“We were planning on adding more departures but the response we’ve been getting hastened our decision. More departures were imperative,” he said.
This year, InsightCuba had 170 departures of small groups of 16 to 24 people and sent around 3,000 people to Cuba.
Among InsightCuba’s new offerings in 2015 are a cruise and a trip that will take Americans to Cuba to run in the Marabana Havana Marathon Nov. 15. Those participating in athletic events fall into one of the categories that no longer requires prior approval from OFAC.
OFAC has steadfastly refused permission to those who want to offer ferry or any other maritime passenger service to Cuba. But the InsightCuba cruise is structured so its travelers fly to Cuba, catch a cruise offered by a Canadian company in Cienfuegos, meet their Cuban driver and host at each port of call and then disembark in Santiago de Cuba.
The cruise, which navigates around the island, begins and ends in Jamaica for its non-American passengers. Popper already has OFAC approval for the cruise.
“I don’t think the American population at large knows it can travel to Cuba legally but now so many more people know about the possibility,” said Popper. Some of the interest is also coming from people who want to go now in case the next president reverses the policy, he said.
“Now is the time to come,” said Chris Cornell, who lives in Montreal and was visiting Cuba last week. “It’s going to change dramatically” with the renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Even if individuals are allowed to book tickets, Popper said he still expects plenty of business for the people-to-people operators.
McAuliff agrees that even if there are other options to book Cuba travel, “travelers will value people-to-people operators’ experience and knowledge” and it will be a good option for first-time travelers to Cuba.
Many, but not all, people-to-people tours tend to be expensive. InsightCuba’s nine-day Classic Cuba tour, which departs Jan. 31, for example, costs $4,895. A nine-day National Geographic Expeditions Tour that visits Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and the Bay of Pigs costs $5,995 per person double occupancy and it doesn’t include airfare.
An eight-day culinary tour of Cuba organized by Chef Douglas Rodriguez’s DRod Culinary Adventures departs on March 13 and costs $6,475 double occupancy, but it includes airfare from Miami. Rodriguez pioneered Nuevo Latino cuisine at the old Yuca restaurant and continues his fusion tradition at two Miami Beach restaurants, OLA and De Rodriguez at Ocean.
Because such people-to-people tours are costly, those taking them tend to be affluent, mostly white and older, said McAuliff.
But if people are permitted to book on their own, they can stay at casas particulares, private bed and breakfasts, or inexpensive hotels and cut costs “as long as they go with the intent to have serious engagement with the Cuban people,” he said.
The new travel policy, said McAuliff, “could really change the demographics of who goes to Cuba from the United States. You could see younger travelers and more blacks and non-Cuban Hispanics as well as families. But it’s still a bit theoretical.”