Cuba: New Laws Loosen Travel Restrictions to Cuba

Local life and color in Cuba. Photo by Robin Thom
Local life and color in Cuba. Photo by Robin Thom

New Laws Loosen Travel Restrictions to Cuba

By Helena Wahlstrom

After the US loosened travel restrictions to Cuba in January, travel businesses are gearing up to service visitors to the previously difficult-to-access island nation.

Those interested in seeing Cuba should make haste: as more and more companies begin to offer travel options to Cuba, the country, long frozen in time, will begin to thaw.

“As tourism opens up, new hotels and services will be built, new prosperity will come into play and the ‘Old Cuba’ will start to vanish. Travelers going there over the next couple of years will be witness to both the old Cuba and the new developing Cuba - a rare opportunity!” said Dan Austin, founder and director of Austin-Lehman Adventures, award-winning small group tour operator that will begin offering tours in Cuba mid-February 2012.

Accessing Cuba Through Cultural Travel

But despite the ease in travel restrictions, don’t expect Cuba to become overrun by beach tourists just yet. On January 14, 2011, President Obama instructed relevant government departments to begin allowing certain groups and individuals to travel to Cuba, provided they apply for a license.

These include religious organizations and students, close relatives of Cubans and humanitarians. Regular tourism, however, remains forbidden.

Additionally, charter companies are allowed to fly people into Cuba, and travelers who fall under the specific categories can now get permission to travel there from the charter company instead of the U.S. government, The Wall Street Journal reported on October 24, 2011.

Charter companies expect to see a boom in travel, estimating 400,000 people will fly between Cuba and the U.S. this year, an increase of 250,000 from 2010.

Cultural travel is also allowed under the new rules, which has caused a number of tour operators to jump at the chance. Through its people-to-people initiative, the U.S. government allows groups to experience the day-to-day life of Cubans in an effort to encourage cultural exchange.

One of the perks of traveling with a licensed tour operator is that travelers won’t need to complete applications, as travel with the companies is fully authorized.

Musicians jam at the Havana Club. Photo by Robin Thom
Musicians jam at the Havana Club. Photo by Robin Thom

Journeys into the Hidden Cuba

Insight Cuba, with a history of providing legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens, is once again offering cultural travel to the island after a policy change halted its educational exchange programs in 2004 after four years of operation.

After the Obama Administration restored people-to-people educational travel to Cuba, the company’s license was renewed. Insight Cuba’s inaugural trips to Havana departed in August.

The company is a division of Cross-Cultural Solutions, a non-profit organization that provides volunteer service to communities abroad. Since 1995, over 25,000 people have participated in CCS’s programs around the world.

For Insight Cuba, cultural travel means that visitors encounter people and places that the average tourist rarely sees, said Savina Perez, senior marketing manager.

“A few of the activities a participant may experience include a visit to an orphanage, a meeting with the association for the blind, a tour of the literacy museum, visiting a polyclinic to learn about healthcare in Cuba, and a private lecture with a jazz musician to learn about musicians’ reality.”

Insight Cuba will have over 130 departures through September 2012 with six itineraries, including Cuban Music & Art Experience, Havana and Colonial Trinidad, and Havana Jazz Experience.

The small groups, with a maximum of 16 participants, are led by an in-country host/escort into Cuban cultural experiences. Through the guidance of the Cuban host, visitors gain access to the “real Cuba,” and explore the island’s hidden cultural treasures in a way that allows them to immerse into Cuban life for the duration of their stay.

“When local Cubans and our American participants came together, an instant friendship was born. They shared stories, traded smiles, and walked away with memories to last a lifetime. It really is what traveling is all about," said Tom Popper, Director of Insight Cuba.

A taste of the Cuban culture that travelers can experience.
A taste of the Cuban culture that travelers can experience.

Experiencing Cuban Life

Austin-Lehman Adventures, a tour operator with 38 years of experience as an adventure travel company, is excited to be joining the ranks of operators providing cultural travel in Cuba next year.

ALA specializes in active and environmentally and culturally sensitive travel in groups consisting of a maximum of 12 people. In 2011, the company won the Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award for Corporate Innovation for their Wheels of Change initiative, which collects donated bicycles in the U.S. and ships them to Africa.

Next year, ALA is launching their new Real Cuba itinerary, a 10-day tour to Havana, Viñales, Las Terrazas and Trinidad that introduces visitors to the beaches, history and culture of Cuba. Among the tour’s highlights are Che Guevara’s headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the studio-home of José Fuster, the “Picasso of the Caribbean,” in the Flores district, and a steam train trip to the Valley of the Sugar Mills and a former slave plantation.

ALA takes pride in their tour guides and their ratio of one guide to every six guests, 1:4 on most trips. On the Real Cuba tour, noted Cuba travel expert Christopher Baker, who also designed the itinerary, will act as a guide along with other associates.

Under the guidance of these experts, visitors will meet a range of Cuban professionals and attend a walking tour to Old Havana’s private homes and community projects, including colonial mansions that have been converted into rehabilitation centers, maternity clinics and schoolrooms.

Participants also experience Cuban life by visiting gardener Ana Lydia, who leads them on a tour of an orchid garden in Soroa. After that, guests get to know Las Terrazas, a post-revolution model rural community built sustainably around a lake.

Other possible attractions include a women’s artisan cooperative, a serigraphy workshop, a colonial-era coffee plantation to learn about the restoration of this colonial enterprise and a community center.

Visiting the Literacy Museum.
Visiting the Literacy Museum.

Propaganda and People Watching

Karen Kovach of Lakeland, Florida and her husband visited Cuba with Insight Cuba for a long weekend in September. As avid travelers, both Karen and her husband had long wanted to go to Cuba. In addition, both of them had several friends who were “exiled” Cubans.

“My husband is also a classic car buff so that was an added attraction,” Karen said.

They stayed in Cuba for four days and three nights, touring places like the Museum of the Revolution and the Literacy Museum.

Although Karen says the trip was “very interesting,” she was taken aback by the calculated nature of some of the cultural visits.

“I have to say that by having ‘cultural exchanges’ we were subject to a lot of propaganda,” Karen said. All the guides were sure to mention the U.S. embargo against Cuba and the Cuban Five, who are Cuban intelligence agents convicted of a variety of illegal activities in Miami.

Karen said that the visits to the Literacy Museum and the orphanage were clearly set up for the visitors. “During the visit to the orphanage we were taken to a dorm for the children. Problem was there were no clothes anywhere and it did not have running water. We felt set up!”

The best parts of their trip were walking through the streets, enjoying the architecture and people watching. “We had a lovely sunset dinner overlooking the bay and later went to the fort for the cannon firing. That was fun and lovely. Seeing the people thronging to the Malecon [Eight mile esplanade and seawall] was also memorable."

Although Karen is in no rush to revisit Cuba – “Maybe in ten years” – she thoroughly enjoyed traveling with Insight Cuba, who she said were “wonderful.”

“I would highly recommend them for anyone traveling to Cuba,” she said.

Vintage cabs are part of the street life in Cuba.
Vintage cabs are part of the street life in Cuba.

New Era for Old Cuba

Those interested in visiting this long-secluded nation now have more options than ever to experience Cuba’s faded beauty. As travel restrictions loosen for Americans, Cuba is set to become a more popular destination for cultural travelers, if not for strict beach-tourists looking to party it up.

Whether the influx of travelers will change the landscape of Old Cuba remains to be seen.

“For over 50 years Cuba has been off-limits to most all Americans. As old Cold War rhetoric and embargoes fade into the past Americans will have the unique opportunity to visit and get to know our neighbor to the south,” Austin said.

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Helena Wahlstrom

Helena Wahlstrom

Helena Walstrom was born in Helsinki, Finland where she grew up. She was an intern for GoNOMAD, and was one of the best. She now lives in New Hampshire and works as an editor.