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Cuba: Forbidden Fruit for Americans

Forbidden fruit has always had a particular appeal to me. Tell me not to do something, and I have an irresistible urge to do just that thing. Ask me to close my eyes for a moment, and you’re practically begging me to peek. Prohibit me from going somewhere, and that place takes first priority on my travel wish list.

For more than 50 years, Cuba has been the ultimate forbidden fruit for American travelers. A wide-sweeping trade embargo against the country’s communist government has effectively prohibited American travelers from visiting the island nation, which lies just 90 miles south of Florida. Although Cuba was once a prime vacation destination of rich and powerful Yankees, it became a symbol of the Cold War, a gated paradise off-limits to American tourists.

It was this strict prohibition that made Cuba such an attractive destination for me. I’ve longed to visit the island for all of my adult life (although I passed up an opportunity to go illegally from Mexico once as a college student). And when we began to hear whispers last year that travel restrictions to Cuba might be loosening, I immediately put Cuba at the top of my tourism bucket list.

The rumors turned out to be true; the Obama administration instated a provision in federal Cuban policy that allowed American tour operators to take passengers on “People to People” tours of Cuba that create cultural exchanges between the citizens of the two nations. American tour operators began lining up for licenses last summer and took their first groups of American tourists to Cuba last fall.
In July, I was fortunate enough to secure a spot on one of those tours as a guest of Premier World Discovery. The weeklong adventure in Cuba took us all around Havana, as well as to farmland to the west and beautiful keys off the island’s northeast coast. I was thrilled to visit this long-forbidden destination and to do it legally. I found Cuba fascinating, beautiful, warm, engaging and challenging. It was everything a good trip should be.

I’m not the only person who has longed to visit Cuba. The pent-up demand for this destination exploded in record bookings for the tour operators who began offering trips last year. Today, many tour operators who are licensed to take these trips report waiting lists of groups that extend into 2014.

We found out firsthand just how excited Americans are about Cuba when we surveyed bank travel program directors about their destinations for 2012 and 2013. In its first year of availability, Cuba surged to number four in our survey, surpassing perennially popular international destinations like England, France, Spain and Australia.

There’s a lot to learn on a tour of Cuba, just like a visit to New York, Albuquerque, South Africa or anywhere else in the world. And although global politics sometimes divide us, travel has a powerful way of creating common ground among all sorts of people.

Here’s to more happy exchanges and less forbidden fruit.

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.