The ink was barely dry on the new changes in travel to Cuba, which took effect on Jan. 16, when tour operators reported a surge in phone calls and inquiries from consumers eager to go.
The old rules stipulated that U.S. citizens who wanted to travel legally to Cuba had to justify their trips under 12 broad categories, including family visits or religious, educational or humanitarian purposes, and then get a specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department, often a long and laborious process.
The same 12 categories still hold, but U.S. citizens no longer have to obtain a special license.
And once they get to Cuba, Americans will be able use U.S. credit and debt cards, spend as much as they want and bring back $400 in souvenirs, including $100 in alcohol and cigars.
Airlines and travel agents will be able to provide service to Cuba without obtaining a special license.
Agents, however, must receive confirmation from the client that the travel is authorized to travel under one of the 12 categories, and the agent must retain certifications and other information on file for five years.
It will take time to work out all these kinks, especially in regard to scheduled air service and setting up an ATM-friendly system, for starters.
Here’s what some of the people-to-people operators had to say in answer to the question most frequently asked: “Can I just get on a plane now and go to Cuba?"
“The literal answer is no, you cannot simply get on a plane and go right now and have no limitations on your activities in Cuba," said Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions. "There are still things you must do to qualify under the new rules, but it is much easier to qualify now than before."
“General tourist travel still is prohibited. Airlines won’t begin regularly scheduled service tomorrow, but many of them already provide charter services that we use in tandem with the people-to-people cultural exchanges we offer through authorized tour operator partners,” said Barry Liben, CEO, Travel Leaders Group.
“This is the start of dramatic changes in how Americans will be able to travel to Cuba, but right now your best option is an established people-to-people exchange program with a licensed operator,” said Keith Barton, senior vice president at Abercrombie & Kent.
“You can’t just buy a ticket to Havana tomorrow and explore around the country at will," said Barbara Banks, director of new trip development for Wilderness Travel. "It looks as if there is still a process. You would still have to get approval. This is not just an open door to Cuba."
“The simple truth is that anybody can book a licensed people-to-people program now, said Naomi of Group IST. "There are many providers. So, really, you can go to Cuba now. It will get easier as there will be more airlift, credit cards will be accepted and more infrastructure will be readied and available."
“If you intend to travel to Cuba as a tourist, the answer is no, you cannot just get on a plane and go. The best advice is to contact a Cuba travel expert and sign up for a program that complies with the regulations. These organizations have been taking U.S. citizens to Cuba for years, and their programs offer the kind of access that is not available to regular visitors to Cuba,” said Craig Smith, director of marketing, People to People Ambassador Programs.
“Basically, leisure travel to Cuba will not be around for many years yet because of the embargo," said Arthur Berman, executive vice president, Latour, a member of the Isramworld portfolio of brands." You can only go via 12 authorized categories, and 95% of travelers are still going under people-to-people programs. Travel will be easier, but visitors need to keep a written record of their Cuba transactions for the next five years.”
“Cuba is still a long way away from becoming a destination where travelers can book a flight, immerse themselves into culture and take part in local customs," said Amelia Sugarman, a communications specialist for Go Collette. "We anticipate at least three to four years until the infrastructures are in place to allow all of these aspects to work. You can go to Cuba if you fit into one of the 12 categories, but there will justifications for this."