For the first time in nearly eight years, American tourists are now able to legally visit Cuba – nearly half a century after the US imposed its now-infamous economic embargo. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama reinstated the once-popular “people-to-people” schemes permitting organised travel to the island nation, a programme killed off by George W Bush in 2003. Originally authorised by Bill Clinton four years earlier, the tours helped some 200,000 Americans without direct ties to Cuba experience the island each year.
Re-launched in August, the new People-to-People programmes, though immediately popular, are proving both logistically and legally confounding for even the most sophisticated tourists. To help combat the confusion, New York’s Bronx Museum held a Travel to Cuba Symposium late last week, where seasoned Cuban tourism experts shared their knowledge with more than 200 guests.
“The regulations have changed, but People-to-People programmes are not quite as liberal as they were under Clinton,” says Wayne Smith, Cuba programme director of the Center of International Policy, which co-sponsored the symposium. “We want to help people take advantage of these new regulations and encourage as many travellers as possible to visit Cuba.”
Smith was one of four speakers at last week’s symposium, who addressed issues ranging from the literal meaning of “people-to-people” travel to finding “western-style” lodging to securing entry visas from the Cuban government itself. Lawyer Robert Muse, an expert in legal policies affecting Cuba travel, discussed options for academic-tourism to the island. Long-time National Geographic Society editor Elizabeth Newhouse described the “on-the-ground” practicalities of Obama-approved Cuba tours. And Peter Sanchez, CEO of Cuba Tours and Travel, led the entire group in a lengthy question-and-answer session.
“Our focus is on the hard to get information,” says Sanchez, whose firm has exclusively (and legally) sold Cuban travel for over a decade. “There is a lot of confusion out there; people are unsure how to go about getting to Cuba.”
With everyone from universities to luxury travel agencies to church and synagogue groups subject to their own series of regulations, a single symposium is unlikely to address the needs of every potential traveller. But some clear guidelines did emerge. Cuba travel is an untapped market, noted Newhouse, with dozens of new programmes already sold out, despite their four-figure price tags. Cuba travel remains far less expensive than to other Caribbean islands thanks to decades of infrastructure neglect. Cuba travel is idiosyncratic, as evidenced by the requirement that there must be one Cuban interacting with every four Americans to qualify as “people-to-people” travel. And, despite the new-found good-will, Cuba travel remains highly politicised.
“Much as it did in Eastern Europe, the US government hopes travel in Cuba will help shift the island away from isolation,” Muse told the crowd. “The new programmes are not an affirmation of Americans’ right to travel, but a way to hasten the demise of the regime through cultural penetration.”