Getting to Cuba

During her recent two-week trip to Cuba, Linda Rivers of Hayward, Calif., visited museums, walked along beaches, sipped rum and watched a professional baseball game.

Just don't call it a vacation.

Counter to conventional wisdom, Americans such as Rivers can get to Cuba legally and quite easily. In many cases, there is no wait for a visa, license or government approval. All that's required is a signature and payment.

The wrinkle is that the words "vacation," "tourism" and "leisure" aren't to enter the equation.

Though the United States maintains a prohibition against travel to Cuba — or, more accurately, spending money in Cuba, which is why such travel is regulated by the Treasury Department — there are still several legal avenues for getting there.

Among the most common are group "people-to-people" trips like the one Rivers joined. When you dig slightly below the surface, it's clear these trips are not so different from what people usually do on vacation.

What is mandated is "meaningful interaction" with Cuban people. Though that might cast doubt on scuba diving or sunning yourself at the beach, is dancing late into the night in a Cuban jazz club meaningfully cultural? Or taking in a baseball game where frenzied locals dance and beat on drums? For Rivers, the answer to the latter was an obvious "yes."

"It did give me more appreciation of the culture," she said. "We don't have a lot of drumming and dancing at baseball games in the States."

As part of her person-to-person trip in a group of 16 mostly Bay Area residents who work in affordable housing and academia, she also met with cultural and government officials from across Cuba to discuss the arts, racism and housing. But it was far from a fully programmed trip without freedom, mobility or choice.

"It was not a standard trip to any country, but I didn't feel hemmed in by the guidelines," said Rivers, 45. "They stuck close to the itinerary at times, but part of it included free time to talk to people and go to places you want to see."

People-to-people trips began in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, ended under President George W. Bush and were restored last year under President Barack Obama.

Yet they remain a hot-button issue. As recently as December, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents moved from Cuba before he was born (and before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959), castigated person-to-person trips as "outrageous tourism, which, quite frankly, borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials."

Such watchful eyes make organizations with person-to-person licenses take pains to promote the educational aspects of their trips while playing down tourism. But it's still there.

"The purpose of the person-to-person program from our point of view is to get as much face-to-face time with local people as possible," said Sandra Levinson, of the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies. "That doesn't mean going to a lot of lectures or meeting with a lot of government officials. It means being involved in activities where you meet and greet a lot of Cubans."

But operators also acknowledge that despite full itineraries, travelers become free to do as they wish at some point in the day — usually in the late afternoon or after dinner. That might involve smoking a Cuban cigar or taking a walk on the beach.

"As I tell people, it is an island; you're surrounded by water and sand," said Savina Perez, senior marketing manager for New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Insight Cuba, which runs about 100 person-to-person trips per year. "In the evening, when you want to stroll down the Malecon, you can. You always see Cubans sitting there, hanging out after dinner."

Groups such as Insight Cuba offer several itineraries — "Cuban Music and Art Experience Tour" and "Havana and Colonial Trinidad Tour," for instance — but can tailor trips for smaller groups that can be as small as a gathering of extended family. They also can gear trips toward many activities in many regions.

Though the United States largely stands alone on restricting travel to Cuba, a stance taken since the communist revolution, most travelers, regardless of where they originate, go to Cuba with a group. The reasons are many: Poor infrastructure makes it difficult to get around; a hotel shortage can make accommodations difficult to come by; the cost of getting around the island, especially renting cars, can be prohibitive; and the dialect can be tricky even for Spanish speakers.

But Cuba does get an increasing number of solo travelers. From the U.S., that includes people who qualify for general licenses (journalists, academics, people with religious purposes and those with "close relatives" in Cuba, which is the vast majority of U.S. residents who travel to Cuba); they can go as easily as drawing up an itinerary, signing an affidavit through a Travel Service Provider (there are dozens, mostly in Florida) and swearing they'll keep to it. Those travelers do not need to interact with the Treasury Department.

A person who does not qualify for a general license can apply for a specific license, requiring a more laborious process that involves applying through the Treasury Department. That can take weeks.

The ease of traveling there alone "depends on the individual and how comfortable you are as a traveler," said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which sent 38,000 Americans to Cuba in 2011, mostly Cuban-Americans visiting family.

"It's a different kind of experience," he said. "Roads are not great. There can be potholes when you're not thinking about it and no lights on roads late at night. … But it's one of the friendliest places on Earth. Cubans have always made a distinction between the U.S. people and U.S. government."

The mechanics of actually getting to Cuba also are restricted: The only way to get there legally from the United States is on a sanctioned charter airline, as arranged through a Travel Service Provider. Flights leave daily from Miami and elsewhere in Florida and less often from larger cities, such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Because of the strict regulation of individual travel, most curiosity-seekers stick to group trips, which can cost as little as about $3,500 (for seven to 10 days) or as much as $5,500, depending on the provider. Such costs usually include airfare, hotels, some meals, transportation within Cuba, admission to various venues such as museums, and a guide who doubles as a translator.

Rivers plans to take the trip again. "You take off, see the Keys and — boom — you're in Cuba," she said. "It was amazing. It seemed too close not to be able to go there more easily."

Trip providers

A few of the many agencies with people-to-people licenses providing travel to Cuba:

Center for Cuban Studies cubaupdate.org

Insight Cuba insightcuba.com

Cuba Cultural Travel cubaculturaltravel.com

A few of the many agencies with Travel Service Provider licenses facilitating individual (and often group) travel to Cuba:

Marazul Charters marazul.com

C&T Charters ctcharters.com

Cuba Travel Services cubatravelservices.com

More information about traveling to Cuba can be found at treasury.gov.

jbnoel@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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