The past two weeks have been a busy time for U.S. tour operator Insight Cuba, which on June 28 received its license from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to relaunch its people-to-people educational and cultural tours to Cuba.
"Our phones have been ringing off the hook," said Tom Popper, Insight's director. "We got 100 requests for our trips in the first three days after we got our license."
Insight is offering six Cuba programs, with more than 130 departures through September 2012. Each trip will be limited to 16 participants and will be led by an in-country host/escort.
Four inaugural trips are planned, departing Aug. 11. Three of the four are seven-night programs; the fourth is an eight-night itinerary.
Each trip visits Havana, then splits off to other cities and regions of Cuba, including one itinerary that visits the Bay of Pigs area.
"We still have some capacity for the inaugural trips, but space is filling up fast, and there's a lot of interest in the Bay of Pigs trip," Popper said.
Families are welcome, he said. The minimum age is 12.
Insight is no newcomer to the Cuba market, having run these programs from 2000 to 2003, until travel restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004 brought them to a halt.
Under a travel policy change issued by the Obama administration in January, group travel to Cuba with authorized U.S.-government licensed operators reinstated the people-to-people category of travel, i.e., travel that enables participants to meet and share experiences with locals.
Insight Cuba carried more than 2,500 travelers in 2003 alone on its people-to-people programs, Popper said.
"Many of our bookings are from new customers, but at least one-third are from our clients who traveled to Cuba with us in the past," Popper said.
Some of the return business comes from couples who want to revisit their honeymoon stays in Cuba.
Insight Cuba's custom group department, which already had 33 groups hovering in the background until the new license was received, "has been flooded with calls," Popper said. "I'm chipping in to help, and I plan to staff up that department with more travel specialists."
The department tailors Cuban itineraries for groups of people who share specific interests, such as photographers, historical associations and agricultural organizations.
"These groups accounted for 30% of our people-to-people bookings in 2003," Popper said. "I think the potential now is that these groups will be at least 50% of the business."
He credited his counterparts in Cuba for the success of the customized trips, describing them as "masterminds of organization."
Popper is putting together a brochure specifically for the custom group segment.
Benita Lubic, president of Transeair Travel, a retail agency in Washington that specializes in custom group travel, corporate and incentive travel and is licensed to run religious and humanitarian programs to Cuba, plans to sell into Insight's people-to-people programs.
"Insight has a history with these programs," Lubic said. "They did them well years ago, and it's ideal that they have the license again. If my clients want to go on these programs, we will sell them Insight's trips."
While it is not known how many U.S. tour operators applied for a license to run the people-to-people trips, some licenses have been granted in addition to the one granted to Insight Cuba, which waited five months to receive it.
Witness for Peace is one. The Washington-based organization has brought research-based delegations of educators, health care professionals and religious groups to Cuba for three years.
"Now even more people can benefit from the unique opportunity to visit Cuba and learn more about changing U.S.-Cuba relations," said Sharon Hostetler, executive director.
The firm applied for its people-to-people license in April, received it in late June and plans its first trip for Sept. 9 to 19.
"The trip's theme is environmental sustainability, and our delegation will get to exchange experiences, information and customs with local Cubans who embrace environmental reforms," Hostetler said.
While the trip is not yet sold out, it's filling up, and participants include some who just returned on a Witness for Peace educational trip to Cuba in late June.
A 10-day trip beginning Nov. 20 will bring U.S. lawyers together with their Cuban counterparts.
"These exchanges between people are how we learn from one another," Hostetler said. "Not just the professional angle but in intimate conversations, sharing life experiences, hearing about a day in the life of a Cuban, their struggles and their challenges. The people-to-people programs broaden the whole scope of a visitor's experience in Cuba."
American Tours International, already a licensed provider of educational, cultural and religious programs to Cuba, applied for its people-to-people license "right away, once Obama announced the policy changes," according to a company representative.
The firm launched its www.cubaati.com site in February to facilitate travel to Cuba once it receives its license.
CORRECTION: Distant Horizons of Long Beach, Calif., a licensed travel service provider for Cuba, does not have an application pending for a people-to-people license.