Cultural trips to Cuba are about to be legal

Musicians play for tourists at the National Hotel in Havana. U.S. companies expect to be able to offer trips this summer.
Musicians play for tourists at the National Hotel in Havana. U.S. companies expect to be able to offer trips this summer. (JAVIER GALEANO / Associated Press)
Posted: June 26, 2011

The door to Cuba has been shut tight for so long, it's hard to recognize it opening.

But it is.

American tour companies this summer should be able to legally offer "people-to-people" cultural trips to Cuba to anyone.

Because of a slight easing in U.S. travel restrictions that have been in place for 48 years, these trips will showcase culture and interactions with Cuban artists and citizens.

"They still don't want people going for an inclusive resort beach vacation - that goes against the spirit of the regulations, because it's propping up the regime and doesn't benefit regular people," says Tom Popper, CEO of the tour company Insight Cuba. "But Cuba has so much more to offer than the beaches."

Insight Cuba and other vendors are awaiting licenses so they can start offering trips. Insight Cuba (www.insightcuba.com) has planned 115 trips of three, seven or eight nights to run by April 2012, but it can't offer a thing until the license comes through.

Departures will be from Miami, on charter aircraft. Havana is only 30 minutes away by air.

The main question people ask about Cuba is, "Is it OK to walk around?" Popper says. "Yes, of course."

The embargo against Cuba has been in force since 1963. Until 1977, virtually no American could visit. That was later relaxed so people with family there, religious groups, or academic researchers could visit. Even people-to-people cultural trips were allowed briefly from 2000-03 under a Clinton administration program.

"We had a license, and we operated these absolutely legal, incredibly rich programs," Popper says.

But then the Bush administration shut them down for the next seven years. Insight Cuba shut down, too.

Now, the people-to-people exemption has reopened.

Americans have been sneaking into Cuba for years through third countries. But when they're caught, they can be fined.

"It's estimated that 200,000 Americans travel to Cuba illegally every year through Mexico or Canada," Popper says. "But most travelers don't want to take that kind of risk. So this is an incredible opportunity to go to Cuba. We don't know how long it will be open."

He sees a pent-up demand. Forbidden fruit, a mysterious land, so close to our shores - all those enticements are at play.

"People are so intrigued. Cuba is so close geographically and so culturally familiar," he says. "Once people get there, it's about the intriguing and romantic and fantastic atmosphere, the people - not all about Fidel Castro and communism.

"It's a warm and gentle people. Life exists there on a grand scale. It's like going back in time. So much of Cuba is untouched. You go and feel like it is Cancun in 1977. It hasn't been homogenized."

So, go to Cuba this year. When tour companies get their Cuba licenses within the next month or so, you'll hear and see the ads beckoning you there.

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