By Edward Piegza, Huffpost, President and founder, Classic Journeys
The confusion was instantaneous when new restrictions on travel to Cuba were announced on Friday, June 16. Some news reports seemed to claim that travel was being shut down. There was debate about whether Americans visiting Cuba truly helped the Cuban people as they hoped they would, or if those travelers were unintentionally lining the pockets of the military-intelligence complex.
Well, at the company I founded 22 years ago and still manage, we took a deep breath and stayed calm. We consulted our on-the-ground connections developed over the last several years operating people to people programs in Cuba under our license from the US Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control. And we consulted our advisors on government policy here in the U.S. What became clear quickly is that you can still visit Cuba legally. And you can do it in a way that directly benefits the people of Cuba. Traveling with a tour company that follows the new policy directive means that you can be sure that the Cuban government does NOT take an up-front cut of your travel dollars. Most travelers are relieved to know that these latest restrictions do not touch the style of people-to-people travel that has been approved for Americans to travel to Cuba sing late 2012.
Who does this “restriction” or “rollback” affect?
Independent, do-it-yourself travel suffers the most in the new scenario. This type of unmonitored travel in Cuba has only been possible for a year or so. It appears that what Americans will not be able to do under the new restrictions is directly book hotel rooms or Airbnb accommodations and just hang out in Cuba.
Why doesn’t the policy restrict tour operators?
A quick history lesson explains that. Travel to Cuba used to be strictly forbidden in all forms. When restrictions first loosened, travelers were allowed to visit the island only as a part of formal people-to-people exchange programs. Those programs had to be licensed by the U.S. government. (In the case of my own company, we spent years applying for our license, which then had to be renewed regularly.) “Normalization” relaxed the licensing requirements, but left in place the rules that the trips had to be for cultural exchange purposes. The last phase of “normalization” allowed independent travel. The June 16 announcement stripped away the more recent, looser guidelines, but left in place the original rules with which people to people travel with licensed tour operators has complied from the beginning.
What about the argument that travel supports the Cuban state?
Foreign policy is above my pay grade and there are obviously very strongly held opinions from all sides in this debate. But here’s what I can tell you from direct experience. The Cuban government has official agencies created to act as middlemen in many travel transactions. But not all transactions. Private ownership of restaurants, galleries and other businesses is burgeoning in Havana and all over the island. Well-connected tour operators are being allowed to engage directly with those businesses. And in doing so, travelers are meeting a new generation of entrepreneurs while also seeing their travel dollars go directly into the pockets of local people.
How do I know if a hotel is owned by the military and intelligence agencies?
One concern expressed in issuing the new regulations is that American dollars spent at some hotels go directly to the coffers of Cuba’s military and the intelligence bureaucracy. Travelers should directly ask any tour company they are considering if they stay at hotels owned by GAESA or Gaviota, which are the tourism arms of the Cuban government.
Is it still possible to fly to Cuba?
Yes. Even under the new restrictions, you can fly to Cuba on U.S. commercial airlines. You can comparison shop prices and schedules, use your frequent flyer miles, and land on the island in the way that makes most sense for you. It used to be that the only way to go was on strictly controlled charter flights. For that reason, my own company and most others had to require guests to arrive in Miami the night before so that everyone could all board the same flight together. Many companies are now able to eliminate that requirement and give you the flexibility to plan your arrival and departure, just like you do for any other destination.
Will my visit really matter to the Cuban people?
Yes, it will. Now more than ever. Cubans sincerely like Americans. They are warm, welcoming and deeply appreciative of our visits. In the true and original spirit of people-to-people travel, you can engage directly with them – cooking in their kitchens, dancing in their salsa studios, talking with farmers at work in the tobacco fields. When you eat at one of their privately-owned restaurants, the payment is made directly (rather than through one of those agencies I mentioned earlier). In this way the resources a tour company takes to Cuba for its travelers are transferred directly to the people. The Cuban people live lives that are sometimes hard for us to imagine, on incomes that are inconceivably small. How they cope, how their existences are knit together by family and tradition, and how direct personal interactions affect our understanding of the world are all reasons why I urge you to visit Cuba.
Americans have an opportunity to be part of the change in Cuban-American relations Why would anyone want to give up that privilege now? More than ever, American travelers can enjoy a meaningful, unforgettable experience with the wonderful people of Cuba.