by Peter Orsi
HAVANA – The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.
Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department’s wrath.
“This is travel to Cuba for literally any American,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.
But it won’t all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.
So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.
Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.
“President Obama and the administration continuously say they don’t want more tourism and that’s not what they’re trying to do. But that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.
“The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime,” he said.
Insight Cuba is one of at least a dozen travel groups that have applied for a license to operate on the island since details of the change were issued in April. If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.
In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana’s stately, but crumbling cityscape.
“Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba — legally!” trumpeted a recent press release for one would-be tour operator.
“You can go on forever,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the trips. “The subject matter is virtually limitless.”
Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.
Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from 2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.
Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.
Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.
The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction” with Cubans.
But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.
“It’s more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses,” Popper said.
Still, it’s a far cry from the pre-revolution days when Havana’s mob-controlled nightclubs and casinos were a playground for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Greta Garbo. Back then, cheap ferries and flights from Florida meant tourists could party through the night and leave in the morning without bothering to rent a room.
Academic visits already under way give an idea of what may be allowed.
A recent group of Iowa State University students who came to study sustainable food and development had an itinerary packed with activities like visits to farms, a coffee plantation and an environmental reserve. They also managed to stroll Old Havana on a guided tour, visit an art museum and take in a performance of “Swan Lake” by Cuba’s acclaimed National Ballet.
Agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft said the cultural experiences were key for students to understand Cubans and therefore an integral part of their study.
“We didn’t come here to be on a Caribbean beach; we came to be on farms,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.”
When the Bush administration shut down people-to-people visits in 2004, it cited allegations the rules were being abused.
“You had these groups going down and they would miraculously end up in Varadero (a popular beach resort) or at Hemingway’s home, or they’d end up at cigar factories,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It wasn’t something that was easy to defend when the State Department made inquiries.”
The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, Kavulich said.
So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.
U.S. officials vow to weed out frivolous trips.
“If it is simply salsa dancing and mojitos, no. That doesn’t pass the purposeful-travel criteria,” a State Department official involved with the policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
If the new travel rules are politically sustainable, they have the potential to be “a big business opportunity,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which offers licensed flights between Miami and Cuba and is expanding in anticipation of a surge of travelers.
“Hopefully (the U.S. government) will be issuing the licenses in a timely way and processing them quickly, and people will be able to begin going down. And we hope we can help them,” Guild said. “It’s a significant change.”