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Cuba Travel Opens Dramatically With New Commercial Flights and the Individual General License

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"This change is intended to make authorized educational travel to Cuba more accessible and less expensive for U.S. citizens, and will increase opportunities for direct engagement between Cubans and Americans."
Press release from the Treasury Department, 3/15/16

The combination of the individual general license and commercial air traffic from the US means that there will soon be a significant new opportunity for a wider array of US visitors to Cuba. They will travel by themselves, with their families, or with a group of friends. (The revised regulations for people to people travel are here )

Non-stop flights were confirmed on June 10th by the Department of Transportation from five US cities to nine provincial airports in all parts of Cuba, including an island resort (full list here). Heavily contested slots for twenty daily flights to Havana are not yet decided.

The individual general license relies completely on the ingenuity, integrity and judgment of the traveler as to what qualifies. Unless Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz gains power, it is unlikely his or her conclusions will ever be challenged. Even then it will be hard to dispute the legitimacy of anyone who is not so irresponsible as to post on Facebook about a week on the beach. As a key State Department official said at the New York Times Travel Show in January 2015, the burden of proof of violations is on the Office of Foreign Assets Control which is in no position to second guess the actions of individual citizens.

Although some tour operators have said that the individual traveler must pursue a hard to replicate micro-version of what they offer for $3,500 or more per week, that is not the intention of the new regulation, as quoted above. Group tours do provide access to institutional settings that are hard for independent travelers to replicate. However such events are inherently pre-organized and channeled. They reflect important aspects of Cuban reality but lack the spontaneity and one on one engagement that motivated visitors can achieve on their own.

Less experienced travelers, especially those without ability to speak Spanish, may feel more comfortable in fulfilling their legal and moral obligation by employing a capable and experienced Cuban guide/interpreter to facilitate the itinerary they conceived from guide books and the internet, with flexibility to make changes as interests evolve.

Others will want to book locally a la carte half day, full day, overnight or multi-night programmed excursions to fit into their overall independent schedule.

Most will probably stay in casas particulares (bed and breakfasts), or mini-hotels / hostals (a natural small and medium enterprise expansion of the cuenta propista sector) for about $35 a night.

Age and income of travelers will vary more than currently prevailing. Younger back packers will watch every penny and utilize Cuba's private shared taxi routes (almendares). Older experienced visitors will be able to afford good hotels but want the personally tailored program or independence they favor in other countries. A middle range will be conscious of costs but prepared to invest in meaningful experiences.

There are already Cubans functioning as private guides. A young taxi driver fluent in English gave me his business card in March that reads, "Turismo sin Barreras, Guia y Chofer Profesional, Excursiones Programadas". An innovative private guide service for Havana can be found here.

Already available are a la carte tours that Canadians and Europeans utilize. Cubanacan and other companies have desks in international hotels and at the cruise terminal. Infotour provides a guide and taxi in some cities, only maps in others. Walk-in customers can book at the San Cristobal office in Habana Vieja. http://www.viajessancristobal.cu

A la carte or personally organized tours in the Havana area could include visits to the botanical garden, organic farms, recognized NGOs and associations, Habana Vieja with a specialist, museums, artist studios and galleries, classical and popular concerts, performances of Opera de la Calle, architecture surveys, Tarara beach; or a Hemingway theme program to Finca Vijia, Cojimar and his favorite bars. Attractions and cultural events can be found here.

More ambitious Americans will travel overnight to Matanzas, Santa Clara, Vinales, Las Terazas, Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, the Bay of Pigs and Trinidad. This can be arranged through intercity Viazul and Cubanacan busses; with personal guides and transportation; or by joining group trips booked at kiosks in larger hotels. Travel to Santiago de Cuba on the east end of the island can be undertaken by domestic flight or by cross-country bus with stops in less frequented inland cities like Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas and Holguin. Open jaw bookings permit starting in one provincial city, intercity travel by land, a visit to Havana, and departure from another regional airport.

When scheduled US commercial flights begin in mid-fall from the US, there will be up to 110 per day, but only 20 to Havana. Direct non-stop service could be available from seventeen US cities. Already announced are flights from Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Fort Lauderdale and Minneapolis with destinations of Camaguey, Cayo Coco, Cayo Largo del Sur, Cienfuegos, Holguin, Manzanillo, Matanzas, Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba. For the charter flights, it saves considerable money to use the same company inbound and outbound. Commercial flights are expected to be lower cost but we don't know whether there will still be a benefit to use the same airline on both legs.

The issue under the individual general license is not where you go but what you do along the way and once you get there.

Cuba Cruise

I anticipate hybrid licensing that combines individual and group travel. Cuba Cruise begins its fourth season circumnavigating the island in November. Sailings all year will begin on Friday afternoon in Montego Bay, Jamaica, or Monday morning in Havana. With the advent of commercial flights, more demanding and self-confident travelers will fly to Havana, Matanzas or Santa Clara on Friday or Saturday and enjoy a weekend on their own. Some will be prepared to pay for an English speaking guide to find a good and available casa particular, a car and driver, and to undertake activities that are not on the cruise itinerary. In some cases, the guide may also introduce the traveler to existing half day or overnight sign up excursions offered by San Cristobal or at desks in international hotels.

Open jaw tickets will permit easy addition of destination cities. Flights into Matanzas, less than three hours from Havana, offer a stay at a Varadero beach hotel, productive visits to nearby Cardenas and Matanzas (including the slavery museum at the fortress) before traveling to Havana Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. Flying into Santa Clara adds the opportunity to visit the colonial town of Remedios, the memorial of Che Guevara, and other sites from the history of the revolution, while staying at a beach hotel at Cayo Santa Maria.

After boarding the ship on Monday, the Americans will travel under a group general license and take advantage of the accommodations, meals, transportation and a structured week long program in Havana, Isla de la Juventud, Cienfuegos and Santiago plus a day in Montego Bay, Jamaica. After returning to Havana on the following Monday, most passengers will fly home after a 9 or 10 day visit, although some may wish to create an extension of their time after the cruise, once again employing the individual general license to travel to places like Vinales in Pinar del Rio and the Bay of Pigs.

Step by step

1) Get a good guidebook by an experienced author like the Moon Handbook of Christopher Baker and supplement that with searching the internet. Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, Open Cuba and Cuba Absolutely are good places to start. Every Cuban province has its own web page. This is a big and diverse country with a rich cultural and social life and a plethora of private and public associations and educational institutions.

2) Create a rough itinerary. Look on line for reservations in family owned bed and breakfasts. Airbnb, Cuba Absolutely and Trip Adviser are good sources but not the only ones. If you prefer a hotel, Sol Melia manages many of Cuba's best properties. While block booked long in advance by tour operators, rooms might be found on line at http://www.meliacuba.com/ A variety of quality and price hotels aas well as flights can also be reserved here www.Cuba-Travel.us

3) Decide what air route makes the most sense. Where do you want to enter Cuba? Do you prefer to leave the country from the same or a different city? From what US city will you fly to Cuba? Currently charter flights from the US or a commercial flight from a third country are your only option but that will change in the fall. Book the flight from your travel agent or on line. Spring charter schedules are here http://cubapeopletopeople.blogspot.com/2016/03/spring-air-schedules-and-prices.html

4) The air carrier will ask you to check off a box indicating the category of licensed travel you are covered by. The people to people general license may look like this:
[___] 31 C.F.R. § 515.565(b) People-to-People travel by organizations or by individuals

5) In addition to your air fare and intercity transportation, your daily costs could total as little as $100 per person if you are staying in a bed and breakfast but be sure to bring more as credit and debit.

6) OFAC stipulates that for five years you, "must retain records related to the authorized travel transactions, including records demonstrating a full-time schedule of authorized activities." It should be sufficient if you keep a daily journal of your people to people contacts and file your primary receipts.

John McAuliff
Executive Director
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Coordinator
Cuba/US People to People Partnership
www.ffrd.org
http://cubapeopletopeople.blogspot.com/