Touring Cuba: What You Need to Know Now

By Clark Norton
January 29, 2015
budellison on Flickr

Since President Obama made his announcement in December that the United States would work toward normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, tour operators who run Cuba trips have sounded the same refrain: “Our phones are ringing off the hook.”

That’s no surprise, since Cuba – an island just 90 miles south of the U.S.-- has effectively been off limits to most Americans for more than 50 years. For Americans, at least, Cuba has become just about the hottest destination to travel to in 2015 – or at least aspire to travel to.

Transitional Phase

We say “aspire” because the U.S. is still in a transitional phase between having virtually no diplomatic ties with Cuba and having full ties – and travel is no exception. (It’s likely to remain that way for a while, as well, due to domestic political disputes.)

“The fact is, nothing all that much has changed – yet,” says one tour operator. But the momentum is clearly toward change, and it could turn out to be more rapid than anyone imagines.

What Has Changed So Far

Here are some things that have changed recently, as enumerated by the U.S. Department of Commerce in its new Cuba travel regulations, issued on January 16 of this year:

  • Travel agents and airlines can now provide authorized travel and air carrier services without the need for a specific license. Note that while most U.S. airlines still can’t provide service directly to Cuba, a number are now applying.
  • Note the word “authorized” in the above paragraph. There are still just 12 categories of U.S. citizens who are actually authorized to visit Cuba – though those who fit into at least one of these categories can now do so without getting pre-approval from the government. (In all likelihood, though, you may need to provide some evidence of eligibility when buying your ticket, when arriving in Cuba, and/or arriving back in the U.S.)
  • None of the 12 categories authorizes travel for its own sake – whether for pure sightseeing, say, or staying at a beach resort.
  • The categories do authorize travel for family visits; official government business; professional research and meetings; educational, journalistic, or religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; “support for the Cuban people;” humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
  • Stripping away the bureaucratese, that means that for the typical American who doesn’t have a professional, business, sporting, or family reason to visit Cuba, you’ll still need to do so under the auspices of a tour agency that runs educational, “people-to-people” trips to Cuba.

Keep in mind that some Americans have been visiting Cuba for several years now by taking just such tours -- and having a great time doing so, learning about Cuba, its history, culture, and people.

Tours Are Still the Way to Go

Even if travel were totally opened up to Cuba tomorrow, taking tours from experienced suppliers would still make sense because hotel space in Cuba is at a premium – in fact, it’s often filled to near capacity. And the likelihood of getting scammed by touts and unscrupulous taxi drivers – a fact of life in this poor nation – is much less when taking a tour.

Add to that the local knowledge that good guides can bring to a tour group -- on what to see, how to get around, how to meet the locals, and where to eat, among other things in a country that’s still ill-prepared for mass tourism -- and taking a tour remains the best way to go.  

Costs Should Drop

One bit of good news is that the costs of such tours are now likely to drop in price, due to the end of mandatory minimums charged per day for American tourists. U.S. travelers will now be able to spend money for living expenses and personal consumption of items in Cuba that they couldn’t previously. And to pay for it all, Americans will also be able to use credit and debit cards there.

In practice, some of these things will require a little while to be implemented – Cuban merchants, for example, have to acquire the equipment and technology to accept credit cards.

Finally, authorized U.S. travelers will be able to import up to $400 of goods acquired in Cuba for personal use, including no more than $100 of alcohol or tobacco products (so purchase Cuban cigars wisely).

We’ll be closely monitoring the travel situation to Cuba as developments proceed. Meanwhile, have a look at the tours offered on Stride and get inspired to make 2015 your year to visit Cuba. It’s inevitable that change is coming to this time capsule of a country – so why not see it now?

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