Going Places, Far & Near

Tour Companies, Cheering Obama’s Cuba Policy, Urge Travelers to ‘See Cuba Now’

President Obama's action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say "see Cuba now" before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)

President Obama’s action to normalize relations between the US and Cuba, easing travel restrictions, is expected to spur a boom in travel to the island nation. Tour operators say “see Cuba now” before the inevitable change (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures)

by Karen Rubin

Tour operators who currently offer legal travel programs for United States citizens to go to Cuba have had their phones ringing off the hook since President Obama’s announcement to normalize relations and ease restrictions. Since 2009, when Obama loosened some restrictions, especially making it easier for Cuban Americans who have relatives in Cuba to visit, travel has steadily increased – some 93,000 American travelers visited in 2013 on various people-to-people organized programs, and estimates say that the number could be as high as two million people a year in just a few years time, of which about 500,000 would come on cruise ship.

Don’t pack your bags yet. You still can’t just get on a plane on your own, or head to Cuba for the weekend on a whim. But there will be fewer hoops that tour operators have to go through to bring Americans to the island, still shrouded in mystique, including the ability of Americans to use credit cards.

Still, travel companies expect the numbers of American travelers to explode and bring with it inevitable changes to a place that has been locked in a time warp. They are urging travelers to see Cuba now.

Group IST CEO Michael Goren, in Cuba at the time of the historic announcement, commented “I’m in Havana right now and the excitement about the Obama/Castro announcement is palpable.  People are excited, but they’re also wondering what it will mean for them.  My own personal sense is that once Cuba opens up, the island will change very fast.  The Havana that I’m standing in right now feels like a time capsule.  If people want to see the country as it is right now, this is the time to come.”

“For anyone who is anxious to see the ‘real’ Cuba, do it now,” notes Peggy Goldman of Friendly Planet Travel, Jenkintown, PA “In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.”

It is all very reminiscent of the way it was to travel to China in the first days when the Bamboo Curtain was first parted. I visited for the first time in 1978 – before the US had officially normalized relations. Like Cuba, today, you had to come on an authorized tour – Lindblad Travel organized the trip and obtained our visas through Sweden – and our visits were designed for people-to-people encounters (I stood at the elbow of a surgeon operating on a woman’s thyroid, anesthetized using acupuncture; we visited factories, schools, and homes as well as the phenomenal Xian terracotta soldiers which were just being unearthed).

I literally saw the sweep of the Four Modernizations carry out the Old Guard. When I returned two years later, China was a completely different place – gone were the Mao uniforms in blue, grey or green, and in were colored floral patterns; gone was the fear of anything that might smack of “bourgeoisie” – replaced by a violinist playing Western music in a garden. And while no one could speak English in 1978, English was surprisingly common a mere two years later. On my first trip, I was most affected by the change that occurred in one of my fellow travelers – a judge from the Midwest – whose attitude toward “Red” China was completely transformed through his face-to-face encounters with Chinese people.

This will happen in rapid order in Cuba, as well. And after all, I don’t think there is anyone who contends that our fight is with the 11.2 million Cuban people, who are the ones to pay the price for sanctions – the bad blood goes back more than 50 years, to Fidel Castro and now his brother Raul.

President Obama has appreciated more than any other before him the power of travel and tourism to recruit ordinary people as Ambassadors of understanding and good will. He has appreciated the critical role that Travel and Tourism plays, not just in fostering economic progress but in forging relationships, and the exchange of ideas that lead to progress. Yes, change as well.

In fact, the White House recently hosted its first ever Travel Blogger Summit, to engage travel writers in encouraging American students to take advantage of learning, traveling, working and volunteering abroad opportunities. The white House has gone as far as creating a US Study Abroad Offic3e within the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to manage the Department’s study abroad scholarships and capacity building programs and provide resources that can help interested U.S. students navigate a complex process to study or intern abroad by offering scholarships, recommendations, and guidelines.

“International education and exposure are increasingly essential for the competitiveness of American companies and the American workforce.”

The alternative is a Bamboo Curtain. An Iron Curtain, or now, the hatred, fear and distrust sowed in the North Korean people by virtue of enforced isolation.

“ASTA commends the Obama Administration for charting a new course in U.S. relations with Cuba,” said Zane Kerby, President and CEO of American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the trade group of the travel industry. “Today’s announcement represents a major step toward ASTA’s long-held goal that Americans ought to be allowed to travel across the globe without restriction.”

“Permitting Americans freedom to travel allows them to serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad,” Kerby continued. “ASTA, along with our domestic agency owner and allied travel company members, looks forward to working with President Obama, Administration officials and the U.S. Congress in the coming year to ensure that Americans are free to travel to Cuba without constraint from their own government.”

ASTA, which has long advocated repealing the travel ban, cheered the agreement reached between the U.S. and Cuban governments to ease long-standing restrictions on trade and other interactions between the two countries, including those preventing American citizens from travelling to Cuba.

Included among the steps announced to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba are establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba; authorizing expanded commercial sales/exports from the U.S. of certain goods and services; and expanding travel under general licenses for the 12 existing categories of travel to Cuba authorized by law. (See: www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/12/17/fact-sheet-charting-new-course-cuba)

Specifically, general licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in existing categories, including family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; humanitarian projects, and several others. 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 (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of those services. American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

General tourism, however, remains prohibited under the Cuba embargo enshrined in U.S. law. However, President Obama today pledged today to “engag[e] Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.”

ASTA has long supported a full repeal of the travel ban to Cuba. In 2010, ASTA’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to support a lifting of the travel ban. Among the several rationales for the measure were the prospective economic opportunities awaiting both countries if current travel restrictions were to be lifted, and the possibility of follow-on benefits to Cuba’s neighbors and the travel industry that services them. The consensus among the Board was that – whether as part of multi-destination cruises or as a stop along the way to other countries in the region – the resulting influx of travelers to Cuba could not help but spark demand for new passenger routes, tour operations, and travel agent services.

ASTA estimates at least two million additional Americans would visit Cuba by 2017 if there were to be a full lifting of travel restrictions in 2015. Approximately 1,020,000 would be leisure travelers going by air, 521,400 would be leisure travelers arriving by cruise ship, and another 550,000 Americans would travel to Cuba to visit family members.

No one has crusaded harder or more ardently to open Cuba to American travelers than John McAuliff, Fund for Reconciliation & Development of Cuba/US People to People Partnership..

He writes: “It is clear from the White House statement that individual Americans and groups of Americans will have a general license for any of the listed activities, including what is currently characterized as people to people.  No applications; no reports; no second guessing by OFAC; no costly group tours required.

“My interpretation is that the underlined language means that as long as the traveler fits under these broad categories, he or she can use any travel agent to make arrangements, and presumably on line services, but I am seeking clarification.”

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in these existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.

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 (OFAC) regulations governing travel services to Cuba, and general licenses will authorize provision of such services.

“Also important: no more restrictions on Americans attending conferences in Cuba, organized by Cubans or organized by themselves, or on going independently to study Spanish or courses at Cuban universities.

“Group travel organized by current people to people licensees will still happen because many first time travelers prefer it, but no more license renewal requirements or detailed control by OFAC of programs or exclusion of free time.”

But he adds, “The devil is in the details: ‘The changes announced today will soon be implemented via amendments to regulations of the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce,’ but I believe the spirit of the new policy will be carried out in a timely fashion even if people in Congress and OFAC staff try to undermine it.

“OFAC quickly put out a notice that nothing has changed until it issues new regs which according to an official source, is ‘a matter of weeks or months’.

“In any case, travel through third countries will continue to be easily available for those using the new general license.”

Tour Companies Expand Offerings

Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

Tour Operators who have been offering people-to-people tours to Cuba for the last four years (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

Several operators have cultivated programs designed for these people-to-people encounters since 2009, when Obama eased the way for journalists, professionals, and others to visit, and now are looking forward to the possibility of even more generic tourism. (Canadian travel companies have already been operating without restrictions, and the influx of travelers from the United States is likely to put pressure on lodging capacity, while pushing up rates – which is why cruise ships are so anxious to get in.

Friendly Planet Travel already plans to expand its group tours to Cuba. At present, the company offers three programs with set departures. In addition, it operates various group programs during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests including tours organized for photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups.

“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.”

What will likely change, and what will not: American travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA and have to take enough cash with them to cover any purchases in Cuba they want to make, which is uncomfortable for many people. However, it is expected that travelers will soon be able to use credit cards. Also – though it is not yet clear – it may be possible for Americans to finally bring back Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s travelers can only enjoy while on the island.

“If the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

“Cuba has remained elusive to most Americans. But thanks to the U.S. Government’s People-to-People program, American travelers have been visiting Cuba for the past three years as part of these educational exchanges.

“Friendly Planet Travel was one of the first U.S. tour operators to obtain a permit to operate these tours, and has already sent thousands of Americans to Cuba. “And they tell us that these are some of the most rewarding travel experiences they’ve ever had.

“We guarantee you’ll have a travel experience unlike any other! Throughout Cuba, you’ll meet artists in their studios, visit schools, tour organic farms and explore an ingenious, creative society with much to share and an eagerness to learn.

Friendly Planet Travel’s fully escorted tours includes round-trip airfare from Miami, all ground transportation and transfers in Cuba, 4½ & 5 star hotels, many meals, a comprehensive touring and cultural exchange program, and professional English-speaking escort and guides.

Among the offerings: Discover Havana, 6 days from $2399 pp/dbl; Highlights of Havana & Varadero, 7 days from $2759 pp/dbl, and Colors of Cuba, 9 days from $3499 pp, dbl.

Visit friendlyplanet.com or call 800-555-5765.

Group IST’s ‘Havana to Cienfuegos’ an eight-day people-to-people program will continue to operate as scheduled, with sail dates through March 2015.  It is currently the only way Americans can see the country by boat, on board the mega-yacht S/C Panorama, with comfortable accommodations and great food. The Panorama has access to locations and ports that no other programs currently offer, making it a one-of-a-kind way to see Cuba.

From the S/C Panorama, travelers explore the western part of the island nation famous for its culture, music, warm people, art and cigars.  Onboard Cuba specialists and an interpreter facilitate people-to-people connections and meaningful exchanges between the American travelers and Cuban citizens. The program includes excursions to venues such as museums, private art galleries, community centers, concerts, religious centers, schools and ecological centers. Program participants will have a chance to meet and get to know Cuban historians, artists, preservationists, religious leaders, educators, musicians and many typical Cuban citizens throughout eight days. A partial description of some of the activities arranged in Cuba follows.

On the first full day excursion to the province of Artemisa, travelers visit the UNESCO -designated Biosphere Reserve region and the eco-community of “Las Terrazas” in the mountainous area, “Sierra del Rosario”. Here, they meet with locals and learn more about life establishments in the village, including the local family doctor, nurse, clinic, an elementary school, community museum, local artists homes and studios, as well as the site of an old/colonial 18th century coffee plantation. Travelers return to Old Havana to for a walking tour of its plazas. They later visit the Quisicuaba Community to learn about Afro-Cuban culture.

The following day, travelers visit Guanahacabibes National Park, one of the country’s largest nature reserves, where they meet with the naturalists, environmentalists and locals. The visit continues to Cayo Largo, an island comprised of limestone, formed over millions of years from the remains of marine organisms. Here, they stop by a Sea Turtle Breeding Center and Endangered Species Protection program and enjoy some snorkeling with coral reef & conservation experts In Trinidad, a meticulously well-preserved Spanish colonial city, travelers view rich architecture, cobblestone streets, palaces and plazas. The group will walk through the town, sometimes referred to as the “museum city of Cuba,” with a representative of the Office of the City Historian and visit local artists in their home studios, the Museum Romantico or the Architecture Museum.

The People to People program rounds out in Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site founded by French settlers and known as the Pearl of the South. Here, visitors enjoy a walking tour of the city center with a specialist and then visit the Maroya Gallery for Folk Art, where there will be discussions and interchanges with local artists. In the last afternoon of the tour, travelers will enjoy an exchange with some Cuban artists and musicians and take some salsa classes.

On alternate weeks, the Havana to Cienfuegos itinerary is reversed .

Havana to Cienfuegos is available from $4490-$5799, depending on sail date and cabin category. Price includes seven nights on the S/C Panorama, all meals from arrival in Cuba to breakfast on day of departure, Cuban visa, mandatory Cuban medical insurance and transportation as per itinerary. For more information, visit www.groupist.com/cuba .

International Expeditions wrote, “For the past four years, guests on our people-to-people journeys to Cuba have discovered how valuable meaningful interactions between Americans and ordinary Cubans can be in connecting our two countries and learning from one another.

“Explore a wide variety of locations, not just Havana…and not only day trips from Havana, but journeys that take you from town to town and from natural habitat to natural habitat.”

International Expeditions offers two journeys that offer free-ranging discussions with musicians, artists, naturalists, farmers and architects, designed to touch on all aspects of Cuban life and culture so that you return home with a genuine understanding of this enigmatic country.

“Our experience within the delicate infrastructure of Cuba is unrivaled, our itineraries superior and our guides incomparable. You’ll not find a better value overall than with International Expeditions. See Cuba now in this historic time of transformation! Speak now to one of our experienced Travel Planners, who have visited the island and know it well.”

International Expeditions still has several departures of our popular people-to-people programs available, and space is filling quickly, the company notes.

Itineraries include “Complete Cuba” and “Cuba Art & Culture”. Call 844-429-5373 or visit ietravel.com.

"This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here," says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here,” says Natural Habitat Adventures (Photo supplied by Natural Habitat Adventures).

cuba-naturalhabitat1 e2Natural Habitat Adventures, a premier ecotourism company, has unveiled a new “Undiscovered Cuba” 12-day itinerary that explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems on an educational exchange designed to provide a human perspective on the natural side of this captivating Caribbean island nation that has long been inaccessible to American travelers.

Travelers will experience the vibrant cultural centers of Havana and Trinidad as well as virtually unknown national parks, rare botanical gardens, lush tropical ecosystems and fabulous birdlife, and have opportunities to interact with Cuban scientists, naturalists, park managers, academics, organic farmers, community activists, artists, business owners and others eager to share their stories.

“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here. Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades. We are among a select few companies to secure a special U.S. government permit through the newly established People-to-People program, allowing us to offer this exclusive travel opportunity to our privileged guests,” said Ben Bressler, Natural Habitat’s founder and president.

2015 departures, each for a maximum of 15 guests, are: Feb. 10, Feb. 27, and Apr. 18. The per-person double occupancy rate is $7,695, based on a group size of 10 or more. Both international and internal flight costs are in addition to the trip fee. Internal air is $550 (subject to change). Nat Hab books the international flight from Miami to Cienfuegos, Cuba, and the return from Havana to Miami. These flights are organized through a licensed charter company authorized to provide direct flights to Cuba. (See www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba)

In addition to Cuban culture and history, the trip also showcases Cuba’s natural resources and diversity. Highlights include World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and hosted visits to organic farms and community-run ecotourism projects, such as:

Zapata National Park, Viñales National Park & the Viñales Valley and Las Terrazas. Accommodations are always the best available and extend an understanding of culture and history through their locations. The Grand Hotel Trinidad transports guests to the elegance of 16th-century Cuba under Spanish influence, with gracious archways and wrought-iron balconies. The colonial-style Hotel La Ermita offers magnificent views of the Viñales Valley, and in the heart of Havana the luxurious Parque Central is a mix of colonial and modern elements. Sunswept Playa Larga Beach on the southern coast along the Bay of Pigs is home to the Hotel Playa Larga, which offers basic accommodations with easy access to Zapata National Park.
For the complete itinerary see: www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba/itinerary

For trip information, descriptive itineraries, date availability and reservations call 800-543-8917 or visit www.nathab.com.

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