To enter Cuba, tour operators navigate a minefield of rules
Posted on: July 26, 2011
By Gay Nagle Myers
Think of Cuba today as a theater in which the curtain is about to go up
on the first act of a performance that created quite a buzz in
rehearsals a decade ago.
Abercrombie & Kent announced new Cuba programs last week, followed a day
later by a similar announcement from the Globus Family of Brands.
Insight Cuba was first out of the gate in June, and according to
director Tom Popper, it didn't take long to fill its inaugural trip,
which departs Miami on Aug. 11.
There are other companies already in the mix as well, and more
announcements from mainstream operators are expected soon.
Fueling all these product announcements is a policy change issued by the
Obama administration in January, which allows U.S. citizens to travel to
Cuba to meet with local Cubans in the "people-to-people" category of
educational and cultural travel.
The administration expanded the definition of group travel to Cuba
beyond strictly religious, educational, humanitarian and cultural travel
to include U.S. travelers who want to meet and share experiences with
local Cubans in all walks of life.
The people-to-people programs were popular during the final years of the
Clinton administration, but they were discontinued in 2004 by President
George W. Bush.
Obama reversed Bush's decision this year, serving to heighten interest
in travel to Cuba by all sorts of groups and triggering numerous
applications for people-to-people travel licenses from the U.S. government.
But while a lot of companies are clearly eager to jump into the fray,
the process of developing a Cuba product requires patience and a deep
understanding of how to navigate the legal minefield of federal
regulations to obtain a license.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control is charged
with overseeing, implementing, licensing and regulating all categories
of travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens.
Travelers, too, are bound by strict rules and regulations. They still
must travel in escorted groups on trips led by authorized, U.S.
Tour operators like Insight Cuba, A&K and Globus have partnered with or
are associated with nonprofit organizations, some of which already held
a license to offer other categories of travel to Cuba, such as
educational, religious or cultural tours.
Tour operators cannot obtain such a license themselves, under the
current OFAC regulations.
Once companies or organizations have obtained a license to operate
people-to-people programs, they must turn to travel service providers to
handle the travel arrangements for participants in their programs,
including booking hotel accommodations, air, tours and activities in Cuba.
The TSPs — and there are a lot of them — are licensed and appointed by
OFAC to uphold the regulations of the Treasury Department. TSPs
facilitate travel, collect money and provide services for those
individuals or groups who themselves are licensed to go to Cuba.
Many of the TSPs are located in South Florida, and the bulk of their
business involves handling air travel bookings for Cuban-Americans
traveling to Cuba on a general license to visit relatives, a change that
Obama announced in 2009.
In other words, any travel to Cuba must involve two layers of
government-certified entities: a licensed tour operator or nonprofit
travel organization and a licensed TSP.
The official list of TSPs appears as a link on the Treasury Department's
website, at www.treasury.gov/resource-center
For example, Globus and its partner — the Center for Caribbean Religion
& Culture, which holds the license for the Globus programs to Cuba — are
working with Miami-based Cuba Travel Services, an authorized TSP, to
facilitate all the travel arrangements for the Globus programs.
Globus will launch its series of escorted products in January, starting
with a series of religious travel programs. It plans to expand later
into the people-to-people category of cultural exchange travel.
Departure dates for the religious trips will be announced on Aug. 10, at
which time the program will also begin taking reservations. Program
details and pricing will be posted on the Globus website on that date,
said Mike Shields, managing director for groups and emerging markets.
"There will be series of departures from January through May 2012, which
will resume again in September through the end of the year," Shields said.
The Globus product
Globus' first itinerary will be "A Spiritual, Historical and Cultural
Journey," an eight-day Havana-only escorted package.
Scott Nisbet, CEO for the Globus family of brands, described the program
as a "once-in-a-lifetime experience for Globus travelers."
"This itinerary presents an interesting, insightful opportunity to
connect with a fascinating country we know very little about," he said.
"We are thrilled to be among an elite group of tour companies selected
to transport travelers on this spiritual journey to a bygone era."
The itinerary will incorporate a number of religious sites and
religious-themed activities in Havana as well as offer participants a
walking tour of Old Havana, a tour of the Colon Cemetery, a visit to the
Museum of the Revolution and a ride in a 1950s car.
The trip is priced from $2,889 per person, land only, and includes
accommodations at the Melia Cohiba in Havana, all meals, air-conditioned
motorcoach transport and the services of an in-country host/guide.
Roundtrip charter air from Miami to Havana is extra. Air as well as all
other travel arrangements will be handled by Cuba Travel Services, an
The A&K product
A&K has operated in Cuba for five years out of its U.K. headquarters,
offering custom and group tours for travelers from countries other than
the U.S. It will launch its Cuba program for American travelers this
fall out of its U.S. office.
Its series of Cuba programs for U.S. travelers, is made possible by a
partnership with the California-based Foundation for Caribbean Studies,
a nonprofit organization licensed by OFAC. The product will consist of
escorted motorcoach programs led by local in-country host/guides.
The 11-day inaugural trip departs Sept. 30, followed by departures Oct.
14 and 17; Nov. 23; and Dec. 12 and 22.
Departures in 2012 "could at least double this year's number, based on
early forecasts," said Scott Wiseman, A&K's president in the U.S. "We've
built upon our experience in Cuba to ensure our guests will discover
Cuba at its most intimate, authentic and in complete comfort.
"Each tour is limited to 24 participants and includes contact with Cuban
people in all walks of life, from artists and architects to musicians
Tour participants fly into Cienfuegos, near Trinidad on Cuba's south
coast, spend three nights at the Iberostar Gran Hotel Trinidad and
explore the area before moving on to the Hotel Nacional in Havana for
The tours are priced from $4,325 per person, including accommodations,
meals, air-conditioned motorcoach transport and an expedited visa
process upon arrival.
Itineraries include visits to Havana, the colonial town of Trinidad, the
cultural city of Matanzas, the Cuban countryside, historical sites,
sugar mills, a cigar factory and a rum plantation as well as special
sites open only to A&K participants.
Among the special sites is a private visit to Room 511 in the Hotel
Ambos Mundos, Ernest Hemingway's hideout in Havana, and a tour of Finca
Vigie, the writer's seaside home. Richard Harris, senior vice president
of operations, said that because the tour is offered before the home
opens to general visitors each day, "it is more personalized and
intimate and less congested."
The tour price does not include a $449 charter flight from Miami, a $200
fee to the Foundation for Caribbean Studies nor $55 in visa costs.
The Insight Cuba product
Insight Cuba, a division of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit
organization specializing in people-to-people cultural exchanges around
the world, legally carried 2,500 U.S. citizens to Cuba in the second
half of 2003 alone, according to director Tom Popper.
When Insight received its license in late June from OFAC, "we were
excited to be able to relaunch the people-to-people programs once
again," Popper said.
The firm is offering six distinct products, with more than 130
departures through September 2012. Its inaugural tour, on Aug. 11, is
already sold out.
"Bookings are going swimmingly," Popper said. "We have more than 200
bookings scattered throughout our other departures, and the numbers grow
Popper ramped up his staff of travel specialists to handle the
additional volume after the Cuba programs were launched. Today, he said,
"We're handling between 500 and 700 emails and phone inquiries a week."
Each of Insight's programs will be limited to 16 participants.
Prices range from $1,695 for the three-night Weekend in Havana tour to
$3,339 for the seven-night Cuban Music & Art Experience tour.
Prices cover all meals, double-occupancy accommodations, motorcoach
transport, domestic flights within Cuba if required, entry fees, guide
services and travel insurance. Most programs run seven nights.
Air is not included in the package price. Insight Cuba works with
Marazul Charters, a TSP licensed for Cuba travel since 1977.