U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba are easing further starting March 16. But don’t plan your beach-lounging, mojito-sipping vacation to Cuba just yet, says Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a nonprofit travel organization that’s been leading Americans in legal travel to Cuba since 2000. When the changes set forth by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) begin, Americans can plan their own “people-to-people” educational trips to Cuba. In the past, people-to-people educational trips were the domain of companies licensed through the OFAC. Even with the personal travel developments, tourist travel remains prohibited by U.S. law.
“The intent [with people-to-people travel] is to not just do tourist activities, but to meet Cuban people and to exchange, talk about life in the United States, learn about life in Cuba,” Popper says. The announcement comes just a few weeks after the U.S.-Cuba agreement that will allow commercial flights to resume between the two countries. In December 2014, President Obama announced the move to normalize relations with Cuba. Those efforts have been focused on easing financial, trade and travel restrictions. The latest changes come just days before Obama makes an historic trip to Havana, marking the first time a sitting president has visited Cuba in more than 80 years.
Popper said the phones of insightCuba were ringing off the hook after the announcement. “The No. 1 thing we’re hearing, every time there’s a news cycle like this, people call up and say, ‘I want to go to Cuba now, book me a trip, I want to see it before it changes,’ ” he says.
Popper shared the following insights for people interested in planning a people-to-people educational trip.
Washington Post: What qualifies as people-to-people travel?
Tom Popper: OFAC has never defined it, per se, in their own language. The bottom line is for a people-to-people trip to be compliant — the activities or the trip in its entirety can’t be for tourism purposes. What we do with our insightCuba groups is we bring them to meet with normal Cuban people in normal life settings, whether it’s a school or a community project — and there are so many in Cuba that are amazing — meeting with artists and musicians and so forth. The intent is to not just do tourist activities but to meet Cuban people and to exchange, talk about life in the United States, learn about life in Cuba. This can be done across the country.
WP: How does an individual even begin to go about planning a people-t0-people itinerary with no insider knowledge of Cuba?
TP: It’s extraordinarily difficult. We first started doing this in 2000. It was really hard to figure out what that would mean. But I think really what’s intended in this regulation is for President Obama to open up travel, do the best he can without eliminating the travel restrictions or lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which he can’t do; it has to be an act of Congress.
WP: What are some of the biggest challenges individuals face in planning a trip to Cuba?
TP: The biggest difficulty, not just planning a people-to-people itinerary, is getting on a flight and getting a hotel room. The hotels have been sold out for more than a year. Pretty far in advance. It’s one of the major bottlenecks to Cuba right now. How do you get there and where do you sleep? There’s a limited amount of hotels that the American traveler would find sufficient or satisfactory to stay in. A lot of companies, like insightCuba, we’ve blocked hotels until 2018. It’s so much easier to travel to Cuba if you go in a small group, because everything is taken care of.
WP: If people travel to Cuba on their own, they’re expected to keep records of that travel for five years. What kind of record is legitimate? Is it more of an honor system?
TP: That’s always been the case for travel to Cuba. Anything incidental to their travels, any receipts, plane tickets, hotel receipts, meal receipts. They’re also requiring that travelers keep records of what type of activity they participated in. And, as it is right now, we are unaware of OFAC pursuing any travel violations per se for people-to-people.
WP: What if they’re spending a time with, say, a musician or an artist as a people-to-people interaction, and there’s no exchange of money or a receipt?
TP: I think just writing down the person’s name and where they met them and what they discussed would suffice. Some sort of proof. Oftentimes, what they’re looking for, if they do ask, is for receipts: Show us what you spent, where you went. They want to see if you went to an all-inclusive beach resort. Did you do anything other than check into the all-inclusive beach resort?
WP: Is there a possibility that this move toward easing travel restrictions to Cuba could change?
TP: All of these changes since January 16 of last year are indeed absolutely, 100 percent historic. They’re all being done at the executive level, which means if there is a new executive in the White House and they feel differently, there is always the possibility that these things can be reversed. I think the hope and the strategy is so much momentum will have swung the other way — you have commercial airlines, and if you do one day have banks involved, that’ll be very difficult to reverse the changes. This is one more effort in pushing that pendulum in that direction.
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