Companies in dark about Cuba travel, but one gets its license

By Gay Nagle Myers
Welcome To CubaDespite recent stonewalling by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on the license renewal applications of companies running people-to-people programs in Cuba, one company received its license on the first go-round.

However, that's no comfort for those whose license renewals are still pending weeks, and in some cases, months, after being submitted.

This has resulted in trips being scratched or put on hold for November and December departures, hotel space lost, staffs cut back and would-be travelers disappointed.

'No renewal and no word'

The frustrated license seekers include, among others, Insight Cuba, Friendly Planet, National Geographic Expeditions and Austin-Lehman, whose director, Dan Austin, clearly is exasperated.

"No renewal and no word," Austin said. "We worked hard and invested heavily in doing things right and following the rules."

GeoEx (Geographic Expeditions), a San Francisco-based adventure travel company, applied in April and then amended its application in May when OFAC tweaked the program guidelines. It received approval and its one-year license on Sept. 7 in a cover letter from OFAC.

The firm is not new to the people-to-people programs. It ran them during the Clinton administration in 2003, according to CEO Jean-Paul Tennant.

"People-to-people programs fit our philosophy as a company," Tennant said. "We are passionate about travel and the mutual understanding and cultural interactions that travel fosters between people."

The first two departures on GeoEx's eight-day Connecting with Cuba's Living History program are set for Nov. 3 and 26 with one departure per month through April after that, although specific dates are not yet set.

Havana Dancing CoupleGroup size is limited to 18 participants plus the local Cuban guide and GeoEx escort.

The trip is priced at $5,680 per person, plus approximately $500 for the roundtrip charter air between Miami and Havana.

"We did give priority to our repeat clients who had indicated they wanted to go to Cuba when we could take them," Tennant said. "We've had a lot of interest, although space is still available in November."

The itinerary spends three nights in Havana at the Iberostar Parque Central, followed by two nights at the Iberostar Grand Hotel in Trinidad with a stop in Cienfuegos to visit a local choir and two more nights in Havana at the end of the trip, according to Adam Vaught, Cuban program director for GeoEx.

'Our focus is the locals'

"Our focus is the locals," Vaught said. "Guests will meet with artists, historians, dancers, musicians and professors at the University of Havana. One highlight will be visits to some of Cuba's new paladars [private restaurants operated from local homes], where they'll talk with a new group of enterprising restaurateurs and sample homemade specialties."

GeoEx was founded in 1981 under the company name Inner Asia, with the first American-guided trek to the north-face base camp of Mount Everest. It became Geographic Expeditions in the mid-1990s and morphed into GeoEx a few years ago.

The firm offers customized trips to 150 out-of-the-way destinations on five continents. It offers no Europe programs, and its only North America itineraries are two programs in Alaska and several in Mexico.
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