Cuba vacation? Getting closer, but still no cigar

By Robert Dominguez
Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Travel restrictions to Cuba are easing soon, but legally chugging mojitos, puffing Cohibas and lounging by a Havana hotel pool is still a ways off.

Pres. Obama’s changing of U.S. policies towards Cuba are expected to become official this week. But unless you’re a scholar, student or scribe, some sort of professional doing research, a member of a religious group or have close relatives on the island, the near-50-year-old embargo still stands. Meaning most Americans will continue to be effectively banned from going (technically, it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to spend dollars in Cuba).

Yet ever since the White House announced its proposed policy changes more than a week ago, there’s been a huge jump in inquiries at tour companies specializing in legal, “general license” trips to Cuba including those for academic, religious and research reasons. “The announcement has definitely generated great interest in going,” says Mayra Alonso, Cuba program director for Marazul, a Jersey-based travel company catering to Cuban-Americans visiting the island. “There’s been an increase in calls and emails, especially from academic types, wondering about how to get there,” adds Alonso.

“It’s been crazy,” says Leonardo Echevarria of legalcubatravel.com, a Canadian agency with a large American clientele. “There has been lots of requests at this point from people wanting to know exactly what the new regulations will be. We’ve been telling them to wait until we get the complete details.”

Through what it calls “purposeful travel,” the White House hopes the modified measures will “increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities,” according to a White House statement. Among the changes will be more U.S. airports being allowed to offer charter flights for Cuba-bound visitors, and making it easier for Americans to send money to Cubans.

After the Bush administration tightened travel restrictions in 2004, “it basically made it illegal for even those on educational trips to go,” says Malia Everette of Global Exchange, a not-for-profit travel service provider that has been sending doctors, educators, artistic performers and the like to Cuba for the past 22 years through its Reality Tours program. “Over half of our trips were university and high school, and those went away. But a lot of people are calling again - the general public as well as our members who haven’t qualified to travel legally since 2004,” adds Everette. “We even had to create a new voicemail box to handle the calls. This is exciting in a lot of ways.”


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