New US rules promise legal Cuba travel for many


HAVANA – The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.www.cubaluxuryrent.com

Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department’s wrath.

“This is travel to Cuba for literally any American,” said Tom Popper, director of a tour operator, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.

But it won’t all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.

So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.

Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.

“President Obama and the administration continuously say they don’t want more tourism and that’s not what they’re trying to do. But that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.

“The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime,” he said.

If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.

In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana’s stately, but crumbling cityscape.

“Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba — legally!” trumpeted a recent press release for one would-be tour operator.

“You can go on forever,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the trips. “The subject matter is virtually limitless.”

Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.

Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from 2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.

Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.

Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.

The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction” with Cubans.

But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.

“It’s more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses,” Popper said.

Still, it’s a far cry from the pre-revolution days when Havana’s mob-controlled nightclubs and casinos were a playground for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Greta Garbo. Back then, cheap ferries and flights from Florida meant tourists could party through the night and leave in the morning without bothering to rent a room.

Academic visits already under way give an idea of what may be allowed.

A recent group of Iowa State University students who came to study sustainable food and development had an itinerary packed with activities like visits to farms, a coffee plantation and an environmental reserve. They also managed to stroll Old Havana on a guided tour, visit an art museum and take in a performance of “Swan Lake” by Cuba’s acclaimed National Ballet.

Agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft said the cultural experiences were key for students to understand Cubans and therefore an integral part of their study.

“We didn’t come here to be on a Caribbean beach; we came to be on farms,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.”

When the Bush administration shut down people-to-people visits in 2004, it cited allegations the rules were being abused.

“You had these groups going down and they would miraculously end up in Varadero (a popular beach resort) or at Hemingway’s home, or they’d end up at cigar factories,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It wasn’t something that was easy to defend when the State Department made inquiries.”

The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, Kavulich said.

So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.

U.S. officials vow to weed out frivolous trips.

“If it is simply salsa dancing and mojitos, no. That doesn’t pass the purposeful-travel criteria,” a State Department official involved with the policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

If the new travel rules are politically sustainable, they have the potential to be “a big business opportunity,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which offers licensed flights between Miami and Cuba and is expanding in anticipation of a surge of travelers.

“Hopefully (the U.S. government) will be issuing the licenses in a timely way and processing them quickly, and people will be able to begin going down. And we hope we can help them,” Guild said. “It’s a significant change.”

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Survey: 75% of U.S. consumers interested in Cuba visit


Sun Sentinel:

Would you consider a trip to Cuba if restrictions on U.S. travel to the island were lifted?

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Visit Cuba, visit Havana with Marysol Travel Services

A U.S. consumer survey released Tuesday found that 75 respondents would visit or at least consider a trip to Cuba, if Americans were allowed to travel freely there.

Another 1.7 percent said they’d already traveled to Cuba, according to the survey of 953 consumers conducted  by the Travel Leaders travel agency network from March 10 to April 10 across the United States.

The survey comes as the Obama administration issues new rules that make it easier for U.S. religious groups and educational groups to travel to Cuba with U.S. government approval. Most Americans are effectively barred from travel to the island under Washington’s nearly 50-year embargo on Cuba.

“Culturally and historically, Cuba fascinates a large number of Americans.  Physically, it’s amazingly close to the Florida coast, yet so far away because of continued restrictions for most citizens,” stated Roger E. Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group in a statement.

“Like the traveling public, our Travel Leaders experts would welcome the opportunity to experience the country for themselves – the food, the music, the architecture, the beaches and the people – and then assist their clients in realizing a trip of their own to this forbidden destination that has been off-limits for nearly a half century,” he said.

The study found that when asked, “If all travel restrictions are lifted, how interested would you be in traveling to Cuba?”  U.S. consumers surveyed had these responses:

I’ve already been:  1.7 percent.

I’d go immediately: 20.2 percent.

I would go as soon as I believed Cuba was ready for Americans: 21.8 percent.

I might consider going: 33 percent.

I have no interest in going: 23.2 percent.

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An end to classic cars rumbling across Cuba?


Havana, Cuba (CNN) — They rumble down city boulevards and country roads across Cuba: 1950s Fords, Buicks and Pontiacs, some in mint condition, others on the verge of collapse.

But a new law regulating property ownership in Cuba could change that.

At the recent four-day summit of the country’s Communist Party, President Raul Castro announced that the legal framework allowing people to buy and sell cars and homes was in the “final stages.”

What will this mean to the average Cuban?

He didn’t provide details, but many Cubans hope it will be the end of half a century of restrictions. Under current law, they can only freely buy and sell cars that were on the road in Cuba before Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution.

Russian Ladas and modern Peugeots and Kias now outnumber the 1950s classics, but, for the most part, they are owned by the state and cannot be sold on the free market.

Like many owners, Michel outfitted his ’52 Plymouth with a diesel engine and turned it into a private taxi. But he might be open to selling it.

“When they open a car showroom, I’ll get in and try them all and then I’ll tell you what I would do,” he says. “I’ve never driven a modern car.”

But he still doesn’t think the American classics are in danger.

“If these cars didn’t exist, not as many foreigners would come to Cuba to drive around in them and take pictures.”

The changes could be much more significant for Cuba’s real estate market.

As it stands, Cubans officially own their homes, but they can’t buy or sell them. They can only exchange them for homes of a similar value.

In reality, a house trade is generally a complicated process involving illegal agents on the black market and cash. In some cases, buyers will simply marry the seller, put the house under their name and then divorce.

A group of prospective buyers and sellers who gather in the center of Havana said the speculation is that the housing law will be published next month.

“There are people who have money and don’t have a house, so the changes are good,” said one man who declined to give his name.

Because of the restrictions, there are also instances where three or four generations live under the same roof.

It’s not clear how the law will work, but perhaps with an eye on the real estate boom in Russia — Castro was adamant that he won’t allow the “concentration of property.”

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U.S. approves eight more airports for Cuba flights


HAVANA (Reuters) – The government has given permission to eight more airports to offer direct charter flights to and from Cuba in the latest small opening in the 49-year-long trade embargo against the communist island.

Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday Cuba flights would now be allowed from airports in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Previously, Cuba flights could be flown only from Miami, New York and Los Angeles. It was not yet known when flights would begin from the new cities.

President Barack Obama said in January Cuba charter service would be expanded. At the same time, he announced a loosening of restrictions for some groups on U.S. travel to Cuba.

The embargo, imposed since 1962 with the aim of toppling the communist government put in place after a 1959 revolution, prevents most Americans from going to Cuba. Only charter flights, not regular air service, are allowed to operate on U.S.-Cuba routes.

Obama has said he wants to recast U.S.-Cuba relations. He previously removed limits on Cuban American travel to the island located 90 miles from Florida and on the sending of remittances.

Cuban Americans have flooded into the country, packing the flights available and making Americans among the top nationalities numerically to visit Cuba.

Under Obama and President Raul Castro, the longtime ideological foes also have initiated talks on migration issues and the possible resumption of direct mail service.

Some Cuban American leaders and groups have opposed Obama’s measures, saying they help the Cuban government that was run by Fidel Castro for 49 years before his younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him in 2008.

Progress in the long-hostile relations came to a halt in December 2009 when Cuba arrested U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross for working in a U.S.-funded program to promote political change on the island.

The approval of the new airports comes as a Cuban court decides Gross’s fate following a two-day trial last week for what prosecutors said was his involvement in “subversive projects” to “defeat the Revolution.”

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

www.particularcuba.com

New Offers at Jardines del Rey Resort


Ciego de Avila, Cuba Dec 1 (Prensa Latina) The Night Sea excursion is one of the latest offers of the Marlin Nauticas and Marinas company at the Jardines del Rey tourist destination for the high season, December to April.

The excursion is a evening sail in a catamaran around Cayo Guillermo, an area of great beauty, with its rich and abundant marine flora and fauna.

Just three miles from the coast is the Old Channel of the Bahamas, a natural route of marine species bordering the coral reef considered the second largest on the planet.

Another new offer is the opening of a nautical club in Playa Pilar, one of the most beautiful beach resorts in Cuba, with 15-meter high sand dunes.

Boat Adventure is yet another option, and includes a nautical tour aboard a yacht driven by the tourist himself through the labyrinth of natural channels that crisscross the mangrove swamps south of Cayo Guillermo.

Jose Luis Hernandez, director of the Jardines del Rey Marlin branch told Prensa Latina that other offers include rides on glass-bottom boats, catamarans, sailboats and snorkeling in the sea near the cays.

In Cayo Paredon Grande, where visitors may engage in fly fishing for abundant species such as the macabi, shad, pompano and others, and the best months for these nautical activities in Cuba are between January and April, Hernandez said.

The famous U.S. writer Ernest Hemmingway sailed along the northern seas of Cuba during World War II to fight German submarines.

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Cuba travel gets new look, but ban stays


(CNN) — Word that the U.S. government could soon loosen travel restrictions to Cuba may have some American travelers imagining New Year’s in Havana or a spring break on the island’s famed Varadero Beach.

Not so fast.

The proposed changes would essentially reinstate measures that were in place under the Clinton administration — a far cry from an end to the travel ban, which would require an act of Congress.

Obama administration preparing to loosen rules on Cuba travel

Talk of the new rules also comes as Cuba has agreed to free 52 political prisoners by mid-November, but it’s not necessarily a signal that a complete lifting of U.S. travel restrictions is near.

“It certainly could indicate that the climate is more appropriate than it was before the prisoner release started,” said Shasta Darlington, a CNN international correspondent based in Havana.

“[But] one is an executive decision and the other is a legislative decision. I don’t think you can tie them together too closely.”

‘Frisson of the forbidden’

For now, Washington is focusing on “people-to-people” exchanges under which academics, corporations, humanitarian groups and athletic teams could travel to Cuba as a way to promote cultural exchanges and programs with universities.

In a sign of how politically sensitive the issue is, the move is already drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Cuban-American politicians against loosening travel, aid rules

So while European and Canadian visitors continue to flock to Cuba for its tropical climate, Spanish colonial architecture and exotic flair, the island officially remains off-limits to U.S. tourists.

Not that that’s ever stopped some Americans from going anyway, bypassing the restrictions by hopping on a flight to Havana from Canada, Mexico and other destinations.

“It’s partly the frisson of the forbidden; the fact that it is off limits and there’s some kind of excitement quality for a lot of tourists,” said Christopher Baker, a journalist who has visited Cuba dozens of times and is the author of the “Moon Cuba” guidebook.

“At the same time, I run into quite a number of Americans who are kind of thumbing their nose at what they consider inappropriate, unconstitutional restrictions.”

The curiosity factor

Washington severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 and has had an economic embargo in place since 1962. Americans seeking to travel to the island nation must obtain permission to do so and must fit into special categories, like journalists or people visiting a close relative.

Last year, more than 67,000 U.S. citizens obtained approval from the U.S. government to enter Cuba by air, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.

iReport: Send us your photos of Cuba

Supporters of the ban say it needs to continue to put the pressure on the Castro regime, but an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought the U.S. government should allow citizens to travel to Cuba.

Travel agents report getting a fair amount of interest from clients about the island, though the only help they can offer is to refer them to operators outside the United States. Some travel agents say U.S. tourists are eager to see Cuba as it is now, before any major loosening of restrictions.

“Americans aren’t going for the beach vacation. Americans are going to Cuba out of curiosity,” said Terry McCabe, national director of leisure for Altour in Paramus, New Jersey.

“Once you leave the resort areas along the beach, Cuba is a time capsule. I think within 18 to 24 months after they open it up for [U.S.] tourism, some of that will start to change.”

It’s estimated that up to 500,000 additional U.S. tourists could pour into Cuba the first year after the lifting of the travel ban, according to a study prepared for the Cuba Policy Foundation. That number would almost triple five years after the end of the restrictions.

“We’re 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and there are very few Americans here. That would clearly change quickly,” said Darlington, the CNN correspondent.

Cuba’s splashy marketing

But even without a significant number of U.S. travelers, tourism is a vital industry for Cuba.

The country welcomed more than 2.4 million visitors in 2009, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. About 38 percent were from Canada, 34 percent were from Europe and 28 percent were from other regions of the world.

Havana devotes “significant resources” to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in tourism, according to the U.S. Department of State.

It also markets itself aggressively to visitors. The Cuba Tourist Board in Canada, for example, offers a splashy web page tempting tourists with Cuba’s “breathtaking beaches and scenery; fascinating history; rich culture; ecological wonders and more.”

That’s something American travelers might see if some lawmakers have their way.

Earlier this year, the House Agriculture Committee approved a bill that would end the travel ban on Americans to Cuba. The legislation appears to be stalled in the House of Representatives, but it received the thumbs up from the American Society of Travel Agents, which says Americans should be allowed to globetrot without restrictions.

Time: Will the White House fight to end the Cuba travel ban?

“Were the American people allowed to travel to Havana, as they currently are allowed to travel to Pyongyang, Tehran, Khartoum and other cities whose nations’ leaders are publicly opposed to American interests, they could serve as ambassadors of freedom and American values to the Cuban people,” said Colin Tooze, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

For now, that will have to wait.

www.bachelorpartycuba.com

New flights offer easier access to Cuban tourism destinations easier


Xinhua: A Boeing 767 from the Russian Airline “Transaero” carrying 200 passengers on Monday arrived at the Varadero Airport, 250 km east from Havana, a Cuba’s tourism official said on Monday.

The Russian airliner will send visitors twice a week to the Varadero Resort, said Ramon Fundora, a specialist from the Ministry of Tourism. The flight also marks the resumption of Moscow-Caradero airline.

The travels are coordinated by the UkranianTour Operators Lanta Tour and Coral Trave, and the Russian Havanaturrussia, said Fundora.

He added that last week the Brazilian airline Wets Jets also started direct flight to Varadero.

Cuba has seen an increase in its tourists arrival this year despite the global financial crisis. While fewer tourists visited Cuba from major tourist source countries like France and Spain, the opening of new markets such as Venezuela and Russia, has helped raise the total figure.

Some new airline companies started direct flights to the island, specially those from Mexico, Japan, Russia and Brazil.

The Cuban tourism authorities have also launched a promotion campaign entitled “Authentic Cuba” in Europe to open up new market.

Tourism is Cuba’s second largest industry contributing about 20 percent of the island’s total foreign currency annual earning, according to official figures.

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