Three more companies have survived a long and challenging trek through the government's bureaucratic maze to launch federally licensed people-to-people educational travel to Cuba this summer.
The companies are Central Holidays, the Globus Family of Brands and Michigan-based Other Cuban Journeys.
For Central Holidays, a mainstay tour operator to Europe since 1972, the foray into a destination on this side of the Atlantic "is a very big deal," said CEO Gianni Miradoli.
"We were getting requests from our clients who have traveled on our Europe group tours," Miradoli said. "They wanted to go to Cuba with us. We gave it a lot of thought and decided to take the plunge."
The operator partnered with California-based Premier World Discovery/Chamber Explorations, which was granted a license in early April by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to operate the people-to-people cultural exchange programs.
This arrangement was created as a way for the federal government to limit travel to Cuba to low-key educational exchanges while the half-century-old Cuban trade embargo remains in effect. Agents who send clients to the operator are paid a referral fee as opposed to a commission.
Central Holidays' program, announced April 22, offers 19 departures from Aug. 9 through Dec. 12.
"Within four days, we had sold out one of our October departures," Miradoli said. "Adding Cuba to our destination offerings allows us to further cater to our repeat customers who want to explore the world in the signature Central Holidays way."
With all people-to-people programs, the tour operator handles the initial inquiries from agents and customers, and the licensee handles all payments, booking arrangements and financial transactions.
Agents receive a referral fee from the operator for directing clients to the program.
Central Holidays currently offers an eight-day Discover Cuba itinerary with a full schedule of activities in and around Havana. Tour participants meet with locals, artists and dancers during the trip.
The price of $3,899 per person, double, covers roundtrip air from Miami, hotels, transfers, 16 meals, guide services, motorcoach transport, tips, health insurance and baggage handling. The single supplement is $550.
"We will offer more itineraries in 2014," Miradoli said. "But for now, we want to ensure that the quality of the program measures up to the Central Holidays tour standards that our customers have come to expect."
For Globus, entry into the Cuban people-to-people market actually started two years ago. The company was poised to make its debut in Cuba with a series of escorted religious programs in January 2012 after unveiling its plans the previous August.
However, confusion and complications surrounding federal regulations and rules regarding licensed travel to Cuba caused Globus to pull back.
It's back on track now, with two nine-day itineraries offering 20 departures from July 14 through Nov. 3, followed by 13 more in 2014.
Group Voyagers, the company that markets and sells the Globus Family of Brands (Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon Waterways) in the U.S., received its license from OFAC in February.
"Our new programs are not religious in theme but instead offer a full schedule of people-to-people educational exchange activities designed to result in meaningful interactions between our travelers and individuals in Cuba," said Pam Hoffee, vice president of product and operations for the Globus Family of Brands.
The Undiscovered Cuba tour spends a week in Havana and includes tours of historical and cultural sights as well as interactions with artists, musicians, architects, cigar rollers, students and workers at a silk-screening studio.
The second itinerary, Cuba's Charming Colonial Cities & Havana, visits Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) and Havana.
Participants attend a workshop at Casa de Africa discussing the African culture in Cuba, mingle with members of the Santo Angel neighborhood, meet dancers, teachers and costume makers at the Camaguey Ballet Co. and talk baseball with Cuban players.
Rates start at $2,974 per person, double, land only. Roundtrip air from Miami starts at $496.
While Hoffee acknowledged that the Globus itineraries "may be similar to others in the marketplace, ours have been scrutinized to meet our Globus brand standards. We're using some of the best hotels in Cuba, selected some of the top national guides, dedicated one of our product managers who has visited Cuba many times to handpick the people-to-people interactions in our programs."
Globus also includes a welcome briefing in Miami with a group leader who accompanies all departures.
Michigan-based Other Cuban Journeys received its OFAC license in January, but the company's origins date to 2000 when founders Marla Whitesman and Miriam Saul began leading humanitarian trips to Cuba's small Jewish community.
"We helped with the renaissance of that community and brought much-needed aid, as well," Whitesman said. "Through the years, we made many connections and impacted lives in Cuba as well as the travelers we brought with us, who told us that Cuba was a life-changing experience for them."
Saul, a Cuban-American, said, "Our past experiences, personal relationships and friendships with Cubans from all walks of life set us apart from other companies offering the people-to-people programs."
Other Cuban Journeys is offering six departures from June 17 to Jan. 20 on its eight-day Faces of Cuba itinerary, which includes Havana and the provinces of Matanzas and Pinar del Rio.
Prices start at $3,900 per person, double, including roundtrip air from Miami.
Group size on each departure will be capped at 24, Whitesman said.
Other itineraries still being developed will visit Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and additional sites.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.