By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J)
Hmm. Book the Afro-Cubanismo Cuba Tour or the L’Chaim Cuba Tour? Book a room via AirBnB or a traditional hotel? Take one of the cruises around the island, the largest in the Caribbean, to hit more of the popular spots you’ve long heard about? Or book Carnival’s new volunteer-based cruise line – fathom – though you’ll have to wait until next May.
As little as a year ago, most Americans had few ways to travel to Cuba legally because of the economic embargo in place since the Eisenhower administration.
Today – since the most recent relaxations of travel rules announced by President Barack Obama in December, specifically – the gate is open for tourism to Cuba. It was a long-awaited event, it seems.
Tourism was up 36 percent between January, when the new rules went into effect, and May. Tour operators, travel agents and airlines had anticipated the pent-up demand and began tapping into the new Cuban buzz.
“My head is spinning at how fast things have moved in six months,” said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit he founded in 1985. He has been involved with U.S. travel to Cuba and other aspects of bilateral relations since 1996.
McAuliff, who has organized and led more than 15 licensed groups to Cuba and visited the island more than 30 times, was the keynote speaker at the meeting of New Jersey-area travel agents during their recent Cuba Night in Kenilworth. Also on hand were several of the suppliers – cruise and tour operators – who are now offering trips to the country. Among them was the giant Caribbean tour company Apple Vacations.
The new rules have stirred enthusiasm. The crowds are coming, some just because Cuba’s on their bucket lists, others because they feel it’s urgent to get to Cuba now – before it becomes just another Caribbean resort oasis.
But the rules have also brought a wave of new questions about exactly who can visit, how, and what they will find when they get there.
The answers are important and show that while we are indeed beginning a new era of Cuban-U.S. relations, the experience for travelers will be no day at the beach.
THE RULES TO GO
Leisure travel – an actual day at the beach, say – is, in fact, still banned under the embargo. Right now, only U.S. travelers who fall into one of 12 approved categories can legally visit the country without a license in advance. These categories include educational and people-to-people connections: cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens. The categories were established during the Clinton administration; what has changed is that travelers only need a “general” rather than “special” license – the latter required potential visitors to submit license applications to the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees travel to Cuba. The applications for a special license had to be reviewed and approved case by case, and the process could take months. Only the people-to-people category was legal under the general license; now all 12 categories are.
Under a general license, travelers need only check a box on an Office of Foreign Assets Control form, noting what category they will travel on.
Licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba can now bring back up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, $100 of which can be “tobacco products and alcohol combined.” Yes, that includes Cuban cigars. In the past, not only was it illegal for Americans to spend money in Cuba, but Cuban cigars were illegal in the United States altogether.
Travelers will be permitted to use their credit and debit cards.
You will be able to buy a plane ticket online, on your own – once airlines begin offering regular service. The booking process will include the Office of Foreign Assets Control form that asks what type of trip you are taking.
The general license applies to groups, not individuals. You still need to go through a licensed agent or tour operator.
The tour will offer a full-time schedule, and participants are required to adhere to it. The caveat in an Abercrombie & Kent brochure of Cuba programs is typical of all companies’ fine print: “Unlike other Abercrombie & Kent tours, participation in all activities on these itineraries is mandatory, and the program allows for little, if any, free time.”
The new regulations aren’t a license to loll. “Liberty Travel can’t sell a week on the beach at Varadero,” one of the legendary Cuban beach-resort areas, McAuliff noted. “You need to be going for a purpose.”
Despite Obama’s declaration, the restrictions on Cuba were enacted by Congress, and lawmakers would first have to lift the half-century-old trade embargo. Keep your eye on the news.
Though travelers from other parts of the world have been vacationing in Cuba for years, the tourism industry hasn’t kept pace. Cuba, after all, has not been a business-friendly kind of country. Travelers will find accommodations – not to mention everyday things such as hot water, plumbing and electricity, cell service and Internet speeds – have a long way to go.
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, recently met with Cuban hotel companies and says that given current building forecasts, it will take a decade for the supply of hotel rooms to meet demand.
Tour companies reserve blocks of rooms at the good hotels, including the Nacional and the Saratoga, far in advance, but it’s becoming harder to find availability as business increases. The Melia Havana, among the hotels up to U.S. standards in the capital, is booked through 2017, McAuliff said.
In addition, Internet service is slow at best, and unavailable in many areas; cellphones don’t work; calls from Cuba to the U.S. on land lines can be expensive; and while credit cards can now be used in Cuba, most businesses don’t accept them.
THE NEW OPTIONS
The travel industry – both the longtime players and the new so-called disrupters – are tapping into the surging demand, and either sidestepping the problems or becoming the solutions.
Tours: For many years, only a few companies, generally so-called Cuba specialists such as Insight Cuba, offered tours. Now tour operators big and small have added Cuban itineraries. Some have been operating people-to-people trips for several years, including Abercrombie & Kent, which began Cuba trips in 2013 and this year has a 13-day tour option along with its 10-day trip. It’s also offering a 23-day Cuba and South America private jet journey.
Others are just jumping in. One of the newcomers, Apple Vacations, a major player in the sand-and-sun-tour business, made headlines in June when it rolled out two Cuba programs; departures began in September.
People-to-people programs are still the most popular, but now all sorts of spins are being offered. Central Holidays’ Afro Cubanismo and L’Chaim Cuba themes are the most popular of all its Cuban offerings, said a representative of the New Jersey-based company.
Cigars, cars and architecture are also popular themes for trips, with tour participants’ meeting with Cubans who share their interests.
And even specialty companies such as Wilderness Travel and Natural Habitat Adventures have found relevant ways to include Cuba in their offerings, with themes relating to eco-tourism and local life in Cuba.
Lodging: Many Cubans rent out rooms in their homes to travelers. Such arrangements are called “casas particulares,” or private houses, and have become popular alternatives to hotels. For $30 you get a room, breakfast and a people-to-people experience.
And Airbnb.com just entered the market in April with bookings available through travel agents who specialize in Cuba. Popper said Insight Cuba has started looking into such accommodations, “trying to find ideal places for groups and families. It’s not for everybody.” But, he added, especially in the context of people-to-people experiences, “it’s exactly what they want.”
Cruises: A few Cuban cruise options are up and running, but Carnival made the biggest waves with the recent announcement that it would begin seven-night people-to-people ship-based tours to Cuba from Miami through its new, socially based cruise line, fathom.
Ship-based travel to Cuba is proving to be a good way to see the country and avoid the substandard lodging, challenging roads and lack of ground transportation for tourists. McAuliff said he is starting to plan future tours via cruise ship.
CubaCruise, a Miami-based company, will offer its first sailing on Dec. 18. The weeklong cruise aboard the 1,200-passenger Celestyal will not only include people-to-people experiences at ports of call, but various Cuban performers, chefs and other locals will come aboard for forums and demonstrations.
Group IST (International Specialty Travel) is starting eight-day cruises on two new ships, with itineraries that include visits to cigar factories, a sea turtle breeding center, a hike in a national park, dance and music performances, and walking tours of historic towns.
For now, you’re limited to charter flights, but these are getting more convenient, too. Once limited to Miami departures, JetBlue began service from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Havana on July 3.
Scheduled service is expected within a year.
And five new ferry services between Miami and Cuba have also been approved by government officials and should be running by the end of the year.
After that, will the sky be the limit in Cuba? Stay tuned.
IF YOU GO
Travel to Cuba requires more planning than most trips, but Americans seem willing to make the effort. Here’s some information to get you started:
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
As far as official documents, you’ll need a passport that doesn’t expire for at least six months after your return from Cuba. You’ll also need a visa, which the tour you’re going with generally takes care of for you.
Cuba also requires that you buy medical insurance (from the Cuban government), which will cover the duration of your stay. Typically, tour prices include the insurance.
You’ll need cash, as well. The embargo has made Cuba a country that runs on it. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted nor are traveler’s checks. And forget ATMs.
Currency can be exchanged at the Jose Marti International Airport or at your hotel. Keep in mind that there is a 10 percent fee to exchange dollars for Cuban currency. There are two official currencies in Cuba; when you exchange dollars, you’ll receive Cuban convertible pesos, roughly equal to a U.S. dollar.
No special vaccinations or health warnings are connected with travel to Cuba, but don’t drink the water.
There’s a wide variety of organized trips to Cuba. They tend to cost more than trips to other Caribbean destinations, though the quality of amenities is below usual standards. The lack of a tourism infrastructure is, in fact, one reason prices are high: Demand for high-quality lodging far outpaces supply. Similarly, the lack of regularly scheduled air service from the U.S. means fares are higher, too.
The many American tour operators licensed by U.S. officials to offer people-to-people trips include: Grand Circle Foundation (grandcirclefoundation.org), Insight Cuba (insightcuba.com), Smithsonian Journeys (smithsonianjourneys.org), National Geographic Expeditions (nationalgeographicexpeditions.com), Apple Vacations (applevacations.com), Globus (globusjourneys.com), Abercombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.com), Central Holidays (latinamerica-vacations.com), Wilderness Travel (wildernesstravel.com), and Natural Habitat Adventures (nathab.com).
Carnival’s Cuba cruises start next May; fathom.org/cuba.
Globus will begin offering nine-night cruise tours to Cuba out of Miami in January, using a ship operated by Greece-based Celestyal Cruises. Travelers board in Havana after flying as a group from Miami; globusjourneys.com.
Haimark Line, a luxury coastal cruise operator, will begin offering nine-night cruises out of Miami starting February on its 210-passenger Saint Laurent. They’re billed as people-to-people exchanges; haimarkline.com.
Group IST offers eight-night cruises on two ships, starting Dec. 19. Passengers fly from Miami for Havana or Cienfuegos, depending on which itinerary they choose; groupist.com.
MSC Cruises announced in the spring that beginning in December, its 2,120-guest MSC Opera will be based in Havana for the winter 2015-16 season. Its seven-night Caribbean itineraries will include two days in Havana; msccruisesusa.com.
WHICH WAY TO GO?
So many tour companies. So many people-to-people programs. So many “authentic” experiences. And so much money compared with the usual island vacation. How do you choose?
First, know that most companies in the U.S. work with the same “receptivos” or state-run tour operators in Cuba, which arrange hotels, transportation, meals and cultural/people encounters and activities.
“Most of the itineraries are fairly similar since they must use the same three Cuban operators,” said Rick Ardis, president of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford, N.J.
Note the types of accommodations, modes of transportation and restaurants used for the tour. Be realistic about your threshold for roughing it.
Research how long and how much experience your tour operator has had in Cuba. Those that have been working in Cuba for several years may have built valuable relationships with local businesses and communities. “Cubans value relationships,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba.
Call the tour company to get a feel for its knowledge of Cuba and the specifics of its tours. “They should be well versed in handling questions,” Popper said. They should also be proactive in offering information – you shouldn’t have to ask for details.
For more information on the rules about travel to cuba: treasury.gov
A man walks in front of a mural of the Cuban flag in Holguin, Cuba September 20, 2015. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa