MEXICO CITY — There are the people who want to honeymoon on the same beaches their grandparents did. Those who want to extend their Florida vacations with a quick jaunt to the island 90 miles south. Those who want to buy the Havana Club rum and the hand-rolled cigars and see the midcentury jalopies before they disappear. And they want to go, like, today.
“The response in our office has been overwhelming,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, an organization that has been running tours to Cuba — legally — since 2000. “We’re flooded. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
President Obama’s announcement this month of his intention to normalize relations with Cuba and end the Cold War-era standoff has generated massive interest among Americans eager to see the Caribbean island, according to travel industry professionals. But the regulations that restrict those trips to small-group educational and cultural exchanges are still in place, and it is not clear that they will change dramatically. While it may become easier to join a tour focused on cultural or educational themes, Americans will probably not be able to simply go sip rum in the sunshine.
“There is some lack of clarity of what it will mean,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, a Miami-based agency that arranges travel to Cuba. “Everyone’s on hold to see what the Treasury Department will actually print.”
For tourists who play by the rules — rather than routing themselves via Mexico or the Dominican Republic and asking Cuban customs agents to not stamp their U.S. passports — options for visiting Cuba are quite restrictive. Under the embargo, intended to block American money from reaching the Communist Castro regime, most U.S. visitors can travel to Cuba legally only under a license granted for one of 12 reasons codified by Congress in 1996. Those include professional research, religious activities, journalism and sports competitions.
During the Clinton administration and early in Obama’s presidency, “people to people” visits were expanded to allow citizens to visit Cuba in small groups for educational or cultural tours. The goal was to encourage “purposeful” travel — rather than dropping the cruise ship gangplank for any sun-seeking beachgoer.
Each year, about 3 million tourists visit Cuba, many of them Canadians drawn to the country by discount tour packages. Some half a million Americans visited Cuba last year, but most of them were Cuban Americans, who are allowed to visit close relatives on the island without restrictions. Companies seeking to operate tours for people without Cuban heritage may have to provide hundreds of pages of documentation and wait several months to get licenses from the Treasury Department.
The Obama administration plans to create a general license that covers the 12 codified categories, a move that tour operators hope will cut down on bureaucracy and ultimately allow more Americans to visit. Travel companies anticipate that tourists may be able to operate on an honor system, in which they can claim their visits are “purposeful” without having to prove it.
Under the changes outlined, though, American resort or hotel chains won’t be allowed to move in anytime soon. Solo tourists simply out for fun would still not be allowed to travel to Cuba legally.
If the U.S. government isn’t throwing open the floodgates to Cuban tourism, the Communist-ruled nation may not be ready for it, either. The country is short of hotel rooms, taxi cabs, tour buses, airport gates and rental cars. The main terminal at Havana’s international airport has just four baggage carousels, and lines to get through security can be so long that flights are delayed.
On the day of Obama’s speech, Eric Nadel, a radio announcer for the Texas Rangers baseball team, was finishing a six-day tour of the island. His visit, organized by Insight Cuba, is an example of the kind of tourism permitted now. It was a “baseball adventure,” he said. The 18 people involved saw two Cuban major league games and some little league games, and they met with managers, sportswriters and announcers. A highlight for Nadel was meeting Omar Linares, a Cuban Hall of Fame third baseman.
“It was as if Babe Ruth had showed up at a cocktail party here,” he said. “The best player in Cuban history shows up? Are you kidding me?”
Such visits are open to any American, but the itineraries have to be approved by both governments. Nadel’s baseball group had two guides, an American and a Cuban who was affiliated with the government, and most of the activities had to be related to cultural and educational themes. Including the chartered flight from Miami, the trip cost about $5,000 per person, Nadel said. “You’re paying for the license,” he said.
He plans to go back with his wife in February and wants to organize more baseball trips next year. “Before it gets flooded with Americans,” Nadel said. “Who knows how fast that’s going to happen?”
Since the announcement, dozens of groups have requested travel arrangements for Cuba from Marazul Charters, Guild said, but given the demand, it may take more than a year to accommodate them all.
“People are overwhelmingly optimistic, overwhelmingly excited,” Guild said. “We’ve been inundated with calls. We’ve had just zillions of e-mails and telephone calls.”
The notion of new, albeit limited, tourism options for Americans does not sit well with everyone. Some critics of the Castro regime protest that Obama is offering concessions on travel without getting any democratic reforms in return. Despite the detente, President Raúl Castro has said he has no plans to change the communist ideals that have underpinned the country’s political system for the past half-century.
“We could have said, ‘We’ll let you have tourists if you move toward a transition government, or do something more for dissidents,’ ” said James Cason, a former chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now the mayor of Coral Gables, Fla. “We just gave away our leverage.”
But many Americans are intensely curious about an island nation that has long been legally off-limits. At Insight Cuba, which has brought some 10,000 Americans to Cuba on people-to-people tours over the past 15 years, Obama’s announcement has caused Web site traffic to increase fourfold and bookings to spike sixfold, Popper said. The agency’s trips have detailed itineraries that often allow Americans to meet local artists and musicians and tour museums and factories.
“I think it portends to an incredible future with regards to travel and opportunities for Americans to see a place that’s been prohibited for 51 years,” Popper said.
Still, this does not mean that MTV Spring Break will be hosting its show next season from a Cuban beach. Scrapping the travel restrictions, just like other portions of the embargo, would require a vote in Congress.
“It’s probably less likely that there will be wide-open travel,” Popper said. “This is the next logical step. It’s kind of like the pendulum has swung.”
Once on the island, American tourists will now be allowed to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods, including up to $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol combined. It’s a change in the right direction, Guild said, but “that doesn’t quite get you to a box of Cuban cigars.”