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Travel to Cuba’s rocky start

American travelers hoping to visit Cuba have waited through a whirlwind of conflicting reports this year as the federal government and various American tour operators have issued sometimes contradictory statements about the legality and availability of group trips to Cuba in the immediate future.

General tourist travel to Cuba has been restricted for American citizens since 1962, when the federal government imposed a trade embargo against Fidel Castro’s communist regime. In January, the Department of the Treasury announced that it would reopen a Clinton-era provision for “People-to-People Groups,” leading several major tour operators to begin organizing and marketing group tours to Cuba.

In July, however, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) issued a memo indicating that American tour operators and travel agents are unauthorized to sell travel to Cuba.

The resulting confusion led tour operator Abercrombie and Kent to cancel planned departures to Cuba; Globus put its plans on hold. Other companies, including National Geographic Expeditions, have indicated that they plan to move forward with tours, and Insight Cuba, a nonprofit group, has already operated three trips under the new rules.

A new class of travel
For more than 30 years, travel to Cuba was restricted to journalists, students, humanitarian groups and Americans with family in Cuba. In 1999, changes put forth by the Clinton administration created a new class of travel to Cuba.

“President Clinton installed a provision called the People-to-People Exchange Provision,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba. “It was an amendment to the educational provision, which was supposed to allow Americans to travel to Cuba to have meaningful interactions with Cubans. The thought was that it would improve relations between the two countries.”

The provision allowed American organizations to apply for licenses to operate people-to-people trips. Insight Cuba received a license and took groups to Cuba from 2000 until 2003, when the Bush administration closed the people-to-people provision.

The provision remained closed until early this year, when the Obama administration reopened it and expanded the rules to allow for people-to-people and faith-based travel. Insight Cuba once again applied for a license, received approval in June and took three groups to Cuba, beginning Aug. 11.

“Our inaugural trips were the first groups of Americans traveling to Cuba since 2003,” Popper said. “They went off wonderfully, and we’re getting incredible feedback.”

For this fall and next year, the organization has scheduled more than 100 departures to Cuba following six different itineraries. According to the government regulations, each itinerary includes a full-time schedule of meetings and experiences with Cuban people, ranging from performances by local artists and musicians to visiting schools and orphanages.

Each itinerary must be approved in advance by OFAC. People-to-people itineraries may not include beach resorts, souvenir shopping or other typical tourist activities.

Restricting tour operators
The announcement that people-to-people travel would resume sparked interest in a number of American tour operators, who were under the impression that they could package and sell these trips to their customers so long as they worked in conjunction with licensed organizations in the United States and Cuba.

Numerous operators, including Globus, Abercrombie and Kent, and National Geographic Expeditions, announced that they would take groups to Cuba.

In response to some of the media reports surrounding the new tours, OFAC issued a statement in July saying that “travel agents and tour operators in the United States that do not hold an OFAC Travel Service Provider authorization cannot organize trips, collect funds, make travel arrangements or engage in any other Cuba travel-related transactions.”

For Globus, which had planned faith-based trips to Cuba in cooperation with a small nonprofit group that holds an OFAC license, the announcement put Cuba tours on ice.

“OFAC said that it’s not about the actual travel, but about who accepts the payments,” said Mike Schields, Globus’ managing director of groups and emerging markets. “They said that only the licensed operator can accept payments.

“The one we were working with, the Caribbean Religion and Cultural Center, has two employees, so they can’t take reservations and credit cards. It put a huge block into the program.”

After the OFAC announcement, Abercrombie and Kent abandoned the idea of taking groups to Cuba. Globus decided to apply for an OFAC license as a faith-based travel provider, since the company has an established faith-based travel division.

National Geographic Expeditions applied for a license earlier this year, received it in August and will take its first group on a 10-day tour in November.

Schields said that so far, there is no indication of how long it might take to secure a license, although the company is keeping plans for January departures in place should approval come through before then.

“We’re going to have tens of thousands of people who want to go,” he said. “Demand is huge. People that lived through that time in history [the 1960s] want to go and learn about the reality.

“And think about the brag appeal — how many people do you know that have been to Cuba? If we opened it up, it would be really big.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.