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USA TODAY: Inaugural Reinstated 'People-to-People' Cuba Tours Start Thursday

August 10th, 2011

By Kitty Bean Yancey

Everyday American travelers, forbidden for years from visiting Cuba legally, can now go, with restrictions.

Inaugural "people-to-people" trips, banned in 2003, reauthorized by the Obama administration in January and subject to strict U.S. licensing requirements, are due to leave Miami Thursday. Organizer Insight Cuba says all systems are go. But other operators' trips are in limbo because of questions about whether they meet government criteria, amid criticism that loosening of rules could open the door to mass tourism.

Insight's inaugural "Havana & Colonial Trinidad," "Havana & Scenic Pinar del Rio" and a "Cuban Music & Art Experience" are three of more than 130 people-to-people outings it is planning in the next year. They will give participants a chance to interact with Cubans on structured, educational itineraries, says Insight director Tom Popper. Tours are being snapped up, he says, because Americans have been waiting to go to Cuba legally, and many have not met the criteria for trips in recent years -- such as being an educator, journalist, a member of a cultural or religious exchange group, etc. Of the music tour, he says, "Imagine if people coming to the United States" could sit down with our top pop stars? Doesn't happen. But that's what participants on Insight's music tour will do, he says.

Insight tours range from a long weekend in Havana at about $1,600, he says. That doesn't include airfare.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Kent, a tour operator best known for luxury safaris, says its announced trips to Cuba are on hold, even though would-be participants have put down deposits. It had announced upscale trips in partnership with the Foundation for Caribbean Studies, that would, according to an earlier press release, allow participants to "explore Cuba's cultural and historical wonders," meet local people "to talk about daily life in Cuba and to enjoy mojitos, salsa dancing and intimate dinners at (privately-owned restaurants) for a first-hand introduction to Cuba's growing private business sector."

Rum tasting, cigar-rolling and a visit to Ernest Hemingway's villa also were on the itinerary.

Now, "Cuba bookings are on hold until we can ensure we are fully compliant with the new guidance issued July 25 by OFAC (the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which issues licenses), says Jean Fawcett, Abercrombie & Kent media relations manager.

Also in question are Cuba trips announced by Vantage Deluxe World Travel. Scott Weiler, senior vice president of marketing, told USA TODAY a few weeks ago that demand for its "Cuban Spirit: Religion and Restoration" outings was so strong that extra dates had been added. The trips involved meeting with Cubans of various faiths.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand to go see Cuba," he said. The country has been off-limits to the everyday American for decades because of a trade embargo that doesn't allow U.S. citizens without family members on the island to spend money in Cuba. An earlier people-to-people program was ended by the George W. Bush Administration in 2003.

Though Vantage reservationists were taking bookings this week, no mention of Cuba tours was on its website, and Vantage did not respond to queries about whether the trips — due to start in September — still are on. This morning, a spokeswoman for the company e-mailed to say she apologized and that the company was working "diligently" to get my questions answered.

In July, The Miami Herald reported that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., wrote to OFAC after she said she saw a travel agent quoted in a Louisiana newspaper saying that "the first wave of pure tourists from America will hit the friendly skies Aug. 11." The Herald, which reported that about 30 companies are offering the people-to-people trips, said Ros-Lehtinen called the travel agent's statement an "egregious misrepresentation" of Cuba travel rules and asked what OFAC was doing to correct any misrepresentation.

On July 25, OFAC issued a "Cuba Travel Advisory," which cited "misstatements in the media suggesting that U.S. foreign policy ... now allows for virtually unrestricted group travel to Cuba by persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The statement added that "the amended Regulations still contain significant travel restrictions." For one thing, "all participants will have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba. Authorized activities by People-to-People Groups are not 'tourist activities' under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which prohibits OFAC from licensing travel-related transactions for tourist activities."

Meanwhile, Ken Crowley, national delegations organizer for Washington, D.C.-based Witness for Peace, which has long offered Cuban cultural programs in areas such as sustainable agriculture and peace-building initiatives, says the new people-to-people licenses "extend participation" and that "we have had a huge response."

He says his group has been approached by tour operators that "haven't gotten their license and want to partner with us. But "our trips are educational," he says. Lying on beaches, overindulging in mojitos and staying in luxury hotels are not what Witness for Peace trips are about.

Crowley is looking forward to giving more U.S. citizens "an opportunity to talk to Cubans," he says. "But we are not in the tourist business."