Americans are once again traveling to Cuba legally, and their numbers keep climbing.
U.S. arrivals topped 98,000 in 2012, up from 73,500 in 2011 and twice the numbers posted in 2007, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office.
True, January-through-August visitor numbers from the U.S. this year, at close to 2 million, represented a slight drop of 1.3% from the same period last year. Despite that slip, operators say demand for the country continues to trend upward, and numbers for all of 2013 could match or even exceed the 2.8 million visitors Cuba welcomed in 2012.
Canadians, Cuba’s largest source market, followed by Europeans, love the island, primarily for its beaches at Varadero on the north coast. So do Russians, with Aeroflot providing daily flights from Moscow to Havana.
But growth in the number of visitors from the U.S. poses some sensitive questions, given the government’s 51-year-old embargo of all Cuban products, including tourism: What’s behind the surge in visitors from the U.S.? And how is this surge sitting with political hard-liners who oppose such travel and are determined to maintain the U.S. government’s already tight commercial quarantine of the island?
Despite data showing clearly that Cuba’s doors are slowly opening to allow certain types of highly regulated travel, the U.S. on Oct. 29 again rebuffed, for the 22nd time, a vote by the United Nations General Assembly calling for an end to the embargo.
While 188 countries approved the nonbinding resolution to lift the embargo, the U.S. and Israel voted against it. (Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands abstained.)
But talk to the companies that are authorized to operate the people-to-people cultural and educational programs to Cuba, and they describe a different scenario altogether, one in which more doors are opening every week.
The reinstatement of these travel programs by the Obama administration in early 2011, following an eight-year hiatus, brought a stampede of license applicants to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the agency that oversees, administers and enforces the guidelines for the programs.
Insight Cuba, the first operator out of the gate, got its one-year license fairly quickly, sending its first groups to Cuba in August 2011 on an its eight-day Classic Cuba itinerary.
Other companies followed, though a backlog of applications, coupled with a staff shortage at OFAC in mid-2012, created a bottleneck and frustrating delays for companies awaiting license renewals.
That now seems to have been resolved, helped along by the fact that OFAC is granting two-year licenses in many cases.
In fact, OFAC reported in a meeting in New York last June that the agency had issued more than 250 licenses for people-to-people travel, according to Insight Cuba’s president, Tom Popper. The company has taken more than 8,000 Americans to Cuba since its people-to-people programs began in 2000.
“With more providers, there is more awareness and more options for people to travel to Cuba,” Popper said. “Even with the 34% increase in American travelers from 2011 to 2012, less than 5% of U.S. passport holders know that they can travel legally to Cuba with an organization that has a license.”
That leaves a very large market to tap, and the companies with licenses are mining the prospects. Among the greatest draw for potential clients, they all seem to agree, is the people-to-people model itself, which eschews traditional tourist activities in favor of authentic interactions.
Among the believers is International Expeditions, which partnered with adventure travel company Intrepid Travel on a series of programs to Cuba starting Dec. 20.
“The increased number of Americans traveling legally to Cuba in 2013 is due in large part to the success of the people-to-people category of license,” said Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions.
But much of the draw, too, he said, is simply pent-up demand.
“For 50 years, Americans have been told that Cuba was forbidden,” Cox said. “And that really makes the country more interesting.”
Due to the interest in its existing programs, Central Holidays expanded its Cuba collection this year with a nine-day, four-cities program.
Similarly, Ady Gelber, chairman and CEO of IsramWorld, said, “Our January and February departures are almost sold out and are selling at a rapid pace beyond our expectations.”
Abercrombie & Kent also added another departure to meet increased demand.
Keith Baron, A&K’s senior vice president, said, “I think this is based on a combination of access to Cuba and the uniquely meaningful interactions that our guests enjoy with local people and encouraging a growing number of travelers to consider Cuba.”
Friendly Planet President Peggy Goldman is convinced that the people-to-people programs “are very much responsible for the increase in travel. Despite some downturns in exotic vacation travel in general, Cuba travel stays strong.”
The company added a third itinerary for 2013 and plans to add a fourth next year, “assuming we get our license renewal again. Our current one is good until September 2014,” she said.
She urges her clients who have taken the Cuba trips to write letters to their congressional representatives, urging them “to remove the useless embargo.”
Goldman thinks so highly of the positive effect of the interactions between Americans and Cubans that she is adding similar opportunities for her clients on Friendly Planet’s programs to other destinations.
Cuba today is ruled by Raul Castro, who has been a loyal follower of his brother Fidel since the two plotted with Che Guevara to overthrow the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950s and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship. But despite the brothers’ close ties, there are signs today that Raul is slowly overhauling the country’s Soviet-inspired economy.
The government recently scrapped exit visas required of Cubans traveling abroad and announced that the country will end its unpopular 19-year-old dual currency system, in which most Cubans are paid in ordinary pesos, a lower-value currency, and are unable to buy goods only available to those with convertible, higher-value pesos, pegged to the U.S. dollar. The changeover will take about 18 months.
As changes begin to take root, decades-old arguments continue to simmer in Washington over whether to engage or isolate Cuba.
Critics of the people-to-people travel program believe that any kind of tourism benefits the Cuban government, because the tourism industry is state-owned.
In a 2011 Senate speech, Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) argued that the people-to-people trips bordered on indoctrination because U.S. travelers meet Cuban hosts and visit monuments and museums dedicated to the Cuban Revolution.
While data suggest that this is an increasingly minority opinion among the U.S. public, the fact remains that the embargo will not budge without congressional action.
On the other hand, John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, said that part of the travel issue could be eased without Congress removing the embargo if Obama would allow all Americans “to travel on a general license for self-declared, non-tourist purposes.”
“This would eliminate a cumbersome application process and allow less expensive, self-directed travel by individuals and families to plan their own travel, stay in privately owned bed-and-breakfasts, use public transportation and rental cars and not be locked into programs created by [Cuban government] enterprises,” McAuliff said.
He pointed out that a real threat exists with an amendment passed by the House Appropriations Committee in July that would curtail legal U.S-Cuba travel and basically eliminate the people-to-people category of travel.
“The prevailing belief is that the president will force removal of the anti-travel language as he did last time, but a passive approach is a mistake,” McAuliff said.
He urged people-to-people licensees to mobilize their clients to inform them of the legislative threat.
Potter concurred. “The detractors in Congress created a bill, which if inserted into the final budget bill, would eliminate people-to-people travel altogether,” he said. “While one senses a change in attitude in the general political scene, the detractors of travel aren’t giving up.”
Most operators take the view that when governments allow their citizens to share lifestyles and experiences, political differences often ease.
“We are pleased that the current administration supports travel to Cuba,” Gelber said. “Our job is to support and promote travel throughout the world. Hopefully our government agrees.”
Although Miradoli does not believe that the success of the people-to-people programs will have an impact on the embargo, he is pleased to be able “to offer an avenue for U.S. travelers to explore Cuba legally.”
International Expeditions’ Cox concurred. “Impacting perceptions does not mean that politically increased travel will have an impact on political officials to the extent that an act of Congress would change the embargo,” he said.
Moreover, he added, some politicians feel that the people-to-people licenses are really just tourism under a different label.
“That’s why it’s so important for tour operators to be diligent and to adhere to both the letter and spirit of our licenses,” Cox said.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.