Who: Kirsy Blietz, 43, and her husband, Jamie, 44, of Silver Spring
Why: 20th wedding anniversary trip while the kids are at camp
When: June for five days
“We love traveling with our four kids, but this adventure is for the two of us. We really want to see Cuba before it goes commercial. We like being with locals, walking around, hiking, sightseeing, eating and listening to live music.”
Like many Americans, Jamie and Kirsy Blietz were thrilled when the Obama administration eased travel restrictions to Cuba for U.S. citizens in January. So thrilled, in fact, that the Silver Spring couple decided that the formerly forbidden island would be the perfect setting for their 20th wedding anniversary celebration next June.
No doubt it would. But amid all the hoopla about U.S. citizens now being able to travel to Cuba legally, it’s important to keep one thing in mind: You can’t just pop over for a visit the way you can to, say, Jamaica or the Bahamas. The United States’s financial embargo against the island remains firmly in effect, meaning that all American visitors must travel with special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Students, aid workers, full-time researchers, journalists and a few other categories of travelers qualify for the licenses. Tourists do not.
Of course, many Americans have skirted these restrictions for years by flying to Cuba from Canada, Mexico or another third country. A Treasury Department spokesman emphasized that this practice remains illegal and that violators face civil penalties and criminal prosecution on their return to the United States.
The new “people-to-people” provision, which allows U.S. citizens to take educational or cultural tours with a licensed travel provider, makes things easier. “Any U.S. individual may travel with one of these licensed organizations,” the spokesman explained in an e-mail, “provided they comply with all terms of the license — most importantly, that they engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
Translation: No lolling on the beach all day. But all the P2P itineraries we checked include visits to basic tourist attractions and, more to the point, allow for downtime each day, when participants can wander around on their own. To date, more than a dozen companies in the United States have been granted licenses, and dozens more await approval.
Among the first to apply, and the first to receive its license: Insight Cuba (800-450-2822, www.insightcuba.com), a New Rochelle, N.Y., tour operator with years of experience in Cuba. It offered cultural exchange trips from 1999, when the Clinton administration initiated the original people-to-people program, to 2004, when the Bush administration shellacked it. The company is currently offering six itineraries, with 130 departures scheduled through September 2012. Activities include salsa dance lessons, cooking classes, visits to schools and other person-to-person events, both planned and spontaneous.
The response from U.S. travelers has been “amazing, overwhelming,” said spokesman Savina Perez. “There’s a huge demand for travel to Cuba, even from people who wouldn’t necessarily travel in groups.” (Tours are limited to 16 people.)
Participants must stick with the prescribed program during the day — by law — but there’s some downtime in the evenings, Perez said, when folks are free to walk around town, visit restaurants or go to clubs. Forget about beach time, although you can get a taste of the salt air and sea breezes by promenading with the locals along Havana’s famous Malecon (seawall and boulevard) at night. Hey, it’s educational.
Prices range from $1,695 per person double for a three-night Weekend in Havana to $3,795 per person double for an eight-night Cuban Music and Art Experience tour of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Bayamo. Other itineraries focus on colonial Trinidad, the Bay of Pigs, jazz and scenic Pinar del Rio. Included in the cost: lodging in four- and five-star hotels, all meals, ground transportation, internal flights (depending on the tour), admission fees, guides and travel insurance. Not included: round-trip air from Washington to Miami, currently about $200 per person, and from Miami to Havana on special charter flights, which average $450, depending on date of travel.
Travel with a museum or university alumni tour. In Washington, for example, the National Trust for Historic Preservation just received its government license, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art and National Geographic Society are on the waiting list. But such tours are unlikely to meet your budget or time requirements.
Join a professional group that is planning a research trip to Cuba and travel under its general license. Bob Guild, vice president of the veteran Cuba tour provider Marazul Charters (800-223-5334, www.marazul.com), said that his company has a limited number of openings on such trips, but he expects that number to dwindle as the people-to-people tours increase.
We should also note that it’s easy to find Web sites offering tips on how to present yourselves as full-time professional researchers and arrange your own “legal,” “hassle-free” trip — but we don’t advise going that route. Nor does Guild, who handles the arrangements for many of the government-approved tour operators. “If a person wants to travel to Cuba without a license, I believe it’s their right to do so,” he said. “But don’t phony it up. To say that’s legal is just not ethical.”
Our recommendation: Consider putting together your own small group — perhaps with members of your church, family, professional organization or kids’ schools — and check with a reputable, licensed tour operator about providing a custom educational or cultural tour. Insight Cuba’s Perez said that the company could design a tour for as few as six people, and that the cost would be similar to its standard tours, prorated according to the length of the trip. Expect to pay from $400 to $500 per person per day, depending on lodging and activities, or $1,600 to $2,000 per person for a four-night trip. Round-trip airfare from Washington to Miami and Miami to Havana would add another $650 or so per person.
Grand total: $4,500 to $5,300. Since food and lodging is included in the price, you should be able to just make your budget.
Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to washingtonpost.com/