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Traveling to War Zones and Other Exciting Places

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Tired of making the same old trip back to Europe this summer? Does Hawaii no longer hold its charm for you? Looking for a completely different vacation?

How about a visit to Cuba, Vietnam or Nicaragua? Does two weeks in South Africa, Ethiopia or Haiti sound enticing?

If you’re adventurous (or, as some might claim, downright stupid) you can get there from here, and with surprising ease. A growing number of specialty tour and travel agents offer these trips on a regular basis.

Except for Libya and Lebanon, there are no U.S. restrictions on citizens traveling abroad. This includes Cuba, Vietnam and Kampuchea (formerly Cambodia), although the State Department has issued a “travel advisory,” warning Americans that travel in these countries can be dangerous, according to State Department spokeswoman Anita Stockman.

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How about a sojourn in Nicaragua? Roberto Gurdian, tour director for Los Angeles-based Tropical Tours, is out to prove that you don’t have to work for Southern Air Transport to fly down to Managua.

But remember, the U.S. government tends to want to know why you went down there. “There has been selective harassment of people returning from trips to Nicaragua,” Gurdian says. (Those with leftist leanings have been questioned on occasion but no arrests have been reported.) “And some pro-Sandinista literature has been confiscated. But that’s about all.”

Trip to Nicaragua

A trip to Nicaragua may not be a popular choice these days, but there is tourism. You don’t need a visa to go there, and your name doesn’t have to be Eugene Hasenfus to, as they say, drop in.

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Tropical Tours has 10-day packages for individual travelers. The price, including hotel and round-trip air fare from Mexico City, is $680.

In Nicaragua you are free to travel to any part of the country you like, except the war zones and the eastern coastal regions where you need special permits.

Despite the war, the Nicaraguan government has built five tourist centers at beaches, lakes and lagoons. Of 100,000 tourists last year, 40% were Americans. And while the United States has imposed a trade embargo against Nicaragua (prohibiting direct commercial flights), there is no official travel ban.

Gurdian also arranges group excursions to Nicaragua. “Recently, a political science professor at a small, conservative college in Massachusetts wanted to teach his students about revolutionary society,” Gurdian says. “So we put the trip together. After all, Nicaragua is the perfect place to do it.”

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The United States also takes a dim view of its citizens traveling to Cuba. While there are no specific U.S. State Department restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling there, there is a U.S. Treasury Department restriction on Americans spending U.S. currency in Cuba.

If you become ill and wish to travel directly home, you’d be out of luck--there are no direct flights between Havana and the United States.

“Cuba has a bad reputation for no reason,” says Richard Ingold, owner of Toluca Tours International in Toluca Lake. “The people are so friendly, and the society is incredibly organized. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives.”

However, U.S. travel agents such as Ingold can’t sell you a trip to Cuba. Canadian travel agencies can arrange such a trip, as well as obtain Cuban visas.

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Globe Tours in Vancouver is one of the agents. Robert Chitrenky, Globe’s manager, says, “There are a large number of Canadians who go there every winter to vacation.” (Canadians made up at least 15% of Cuba’s tourists last year.)

Charter flights leave Canada regularly for Cuba, from Vancouver once a week, others from Toronto and Montreal.

Chitrenky says that although not many Americans want to visit Cuba, most of those who do want to go “are looking to see for themselves why their country doesn’t recognize Cuba. And most of the people we send come back quite impressed with what has been done for them, both in price and in service.”

Plan your trip well in advance. Chitrenky and other Canadian travel agents say they need at least a month to secure a visa from the Cuban government. “Once you’re in Cuba,” he says, “there’s no problem moving about and seeing the sights, although most Americans go to Varadero, a beach resort about 90 miles east of Havana.”

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The cost of a trip to Cuba is about $40 a day for hotel plus about $700 round-trip air fare from Vancouver.

To South Africa

Most Americans aren’t rushing to airline ticket offices to book a vacation in South Africa. “It’s a large enough country,” says Lois Williamson, owner of International Travel in Long Beach, an agency that books trips to South Africa. “If you’re not looking for trouble, you probably won’t find it. It’s like asking if Los Angeles is dangerous.” (Should we tell her?)

Because South African Airways no longer has landing rights in the United States, it’s become a longer and more expensive proposition to get to Johannesburg. Still, Williamson offers a trip for about $1,100 (air fare and car included). “It allows you to go anywhere you want to,” she says. Visits to areas such as Crossroads or Soweto Township are not mentioned in the literature.

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Does a trip to Phnom Penh and Sian Reap interest you? A travel agent in Bangkok offers Cambodian tours. The eight-day tours are organized by Diethelm Travel, and include visits to cultural sights in the Cambodian capital, a trip to the Toul Seng interrogation center operated by the Khmer Rouge and four hours at the Angkor ruins. There are trips to Vietnam as well.

Greg Kane, a co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, owns a company called Vietnam Tours. He puts together trips to such cities as Hanoi, Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon) and Da Nang. His 21-day tours cost about $3,000 from New York.

There is no set itinerary for the tours, although there is a four-day stop in Bangkok to obtain visas at the Vietnamese Embassy. “We have everybody from students to historians who want to visit Vietnam,” Kane says. “Vietnam is a very recent part of our own history, and people have a certain curiosity about it.”

Not So Dangerous

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There are countries where dangerous reputations just aren’t true. Trips to East Germany, Grenada, Haiti and the Soviet Union are easily arranged.

The U.S. State Department is no longer cautioning Americans about travel within a 100-mile radius of Chernobyl, U.S.S.R., and travel to Kiev (about 60 miles from the site of the April 28, 1986, disaster) is slowly rebounding.

In Grenada, the 13-by-21-mile island distinguished by a 1983 invasion by the United States, officials are eagerly awaiting American tourists again. The nutmeg country even launched its own airline in December, 1985. But no one flew the aging Boeing 707, the airline’s only plane, and Grenada Airways has gone out of business. But British West Indies Airlines flies to St. George’s, Grenada, from Miami.

About the only danger awaiting you in Grenada is the possibility of being assaulted with too much nutmeg.

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