Peggy Goldman – Travel expert
Dispelling Four Misconceptions About Travel to Cuba
Posted: 04/13/2013 2:09 pm
You've probably heard the chatter that music superstars Beyoncé and
Jay-Z recently celebrated their five-year wedding anniversary in Cuba.
Their trip reignited questions about whether Americans can travel to
Cuba legally. From what I've seen in the media, there are still many
misconceptions about Americans traveling to Cuba. So, here are the facts.
It's only legal for Americans to travel to Cuba on licensed trips that
involve cultural or educational exchanges with Cubans. These trips are
made possible through People-to-People licenses, granted by The U.S.
Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Only a handful of tour
operators (including my company, Friendly Planet Travel), have been
granted a coveted People-to-People license.
After some initial false reports, we found out this week that Jay-Z and
Beyoncé traveled with a licensed People-to-People tour operator (not my
company) and participated in various activities required by the license.
For example, the New York Times reported that Beyoncé watched an
informal performance by a local dance company, and both stars visited
the children's theater group La Colmenita.
The misconceptions I read about Beyoncé and Jay-Z's trip got me thinking
about some of the other fallacies I've heard about Cuba since we began
offering tours to the country back in 2011. I wanted to clear up a few
of them here:
Misconception #1: It's illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba.
The Truth: Americans can legally visit Cuba by traveling with tour
providers who have People-to-People licenses, which allow them to
interact and exchange ideas with the Cuban people. A typical itinerary
is filled with activities that offer a wide range of interactions
between Cubans and American tourists. From something as simple as
sharing dinner with a Cuban family to attending cultural events,
visiting schools, meeting with local artists and sharing an organic
lunch at a local community farm, the day is spent meeting, talking and
exchanging views. For people who love learning about other cultures,
meeting new people and learning how others live, it's a trip made in heaven.
Misconception #2: It's expensive to visit Cuba.
Fact: Travel is always expensive, and Cuba is more expensive than other
frequently visited destinations in the Caribbean because of geopolitical
issues and bureaucracy. On the other hand, the true value of visiting
Cuba, especially at this time, is literally priceless. The opportunity
for Americans to engage with the Cuban people hasn't been available
since 1960. Since that time, Cubans have stayed true to their heritage,
and because of the long embargo, they have had very little resources to
change much of their physical surroundings. Consequently, a trip to Cuba
will feel like going back in time, with your Father's 1955 Chevy Bel Air
plowing the streets as a taxi. More significantly, the experience of
visiting Cuba will open you up to a whole new world only 230 miles from
Miami International Airport, where people have learned to do more with
less — literally — and where they have proven that there is rich,
rewarding, enchanting life without much material wealth. A legal visit
to Cuba is an investment, but after sending over 2,000 people to Cuba on
Friendly Planet tours, not one traveler has said it wasn't worth their
time or interest. In fact, they've said it's worth every penny.
Misconception #3: Cuba has a limited, but growing tourism infrastructure.
Fact: Cuba's tourism business disappeared when American travelers were
embargoed in 1960. In fact, if it weren't for the Canadians and
Europeans, who love to holiday on Cuba's magnificent, powdery sand
beaches, the industry would be totally dead. Compared to other Caribbean
destinations, Cuba's tourism infrastructure is lacking. There aren't
enough hotels; sometimes the hot water doesn't get hot; sometimes the
water doesn't come out of the spigot at all; occasionally the elevator
(if there is one) breaks down, and so on. That doesn't mean there aren't
deluxe facilities on the island, but where they exist, they are
expensive, even more so for the lack of such facilities. It is important
to note though that Cuba's tourism infrastructure is growing. And while
a few gorgeous beach resorts, which can be found scattered about the
island, are generally not visited by American tourists (sun bathing
doesn't qualify as a people to people activity), there are hotels with
decent amenities to be found. Cuba's tourism infrastructure may be
limited, but it does exist, and you will hardly even have to rough it
the way you might in, say, Madagascar! In any event, travelers to Cuba
are generally more interested in immersing themselves in Cuban culture
and seeing how Cuban people live than they are surrounding themselves in
luxury. And the joy of the experience more than compensates for the
minor inconveniences that may occur.
Misconception #4: Cubans don't like Americans.
Fact: Cubans and Americans have always held an affinity for one another.
Cubans who live in America today have played a pivotal role in
American's perception of the island. Likewise, Cubans are students of
the American people, separated by only a small body of water. Every
Cuban child learns English, starting as early as third grade, and Cubans
on the islands are avid consumers of American culture through
television, music and even the internet, although access in Cuba is
quite a challenge. Our experiences with the people of Cuba have proved
that while governments might stand in the way, people will always find a
way to relate, communicate, and engage. As a traveler, you only need to
walk the streets, wander into a shop or participate in just one people
to people activity to discover that Cubans like Americans very much, and
Americans cannot help but liking Cubans back.
If you're considering traveling to Cuba like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, put
aside any misconceptions you may have about Cuba. I can assure you that
while it may not be the most luxurious vacation you'll ever take, it
will be one of the most meaningful experiences you can ever hope for.
Follow Peggy Goldman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@FriendlyPlanet