Americans can plan ‘people-to-people’ trips to Cuba, but what does that
By Kate Silver March 15 at 5:11 PM
U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba are easing further starting March 16.
But don’t plan your beach-lounging, mojito-sipping vacation to Cuba just
yet, says Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a nonprofit travel
organization that’s been leading Americans in legal travel to Cuba since
2000. When the changes set forth by the Treasury Department’s Office of
Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Commerce Department’s Bureau of
Industry and Security (BIS) begin, Americans can plan their own
“people-to-people” educational trips to Cuba. In the past,
people-to-people educational trips were the domain of companies licensed
through the OFAC. Even with the personal travel developments, tourist
travel remains prohibited by U.S. law.
“The intent [with people-to-people travel] is to not just do tourist
activities, but to meet Cuban people and to exchange, talk about life in
the United States, learn about life in Cuba,” Popper says. The
announcement comes just a few weeks after the U.S.-Cuba agreement that
will allow commercial flights to resume between the two countries. In
December 2014, President Obama announced the move to normalize relations
with Cuba. Those efforts have been focused on easing financial, trade
and travel restrictions. The latest changes come just days before Obama
makes an historic trip to Havana, marking the first time a sitting
president has visited Cuba in more than 80 years.
Popper said the phones of insightCuba were ringing off the hook after
the announcement. “The No. 1 thing we’re hearing, every time there’s a
news cycle like this, people call up and say, ‘I want to go to Cuba now,
book me a trip, I want to see it before it changes,’ ” he says.
Popper shared the following insights for people interested in planning a
people-to-people educational trip.
Washington Post: What qualifies as people-to-people travel?
Tom Popper: OFAC has never defined it, per se, in their own language.
The bottom line is for a people-to-people trip to be compliant — the
activities or the trip in its entirety can’t be for tourism purposes.
What we do with our insightCuba groups is we bring them to meet with
normal Cuban people in normal life settings, whether it’s a school or a
community project — and there are so many in Cuba that are amazing —
meeting with artists and musicians and so forth. The intent is to not
just do tourist activities but to meet Cuban people and to exchange,
talk about life in the United States, learn about life in Cuba. This can
be done across the country.
WP: How does an individual even begin to go about planning a
people-t0-people itinerary with no insider knowledge of Cuba?
TP: It’s extraordinarily difficult. We first started doing this in 2000.
It was really hard to figure out what that would mean. But I think
really what’s intended in this regulation is for President Obama to open
up travel, do the best he can without eliminating the travel
restrictions or lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which he can’t
do; it has to be an act of Congress.
WP: What are some of the biggest challenges individuals face in planning
a trip to Cuba?
TP: The biggest difficulty, not just planning a people-to-people
itinerary, is getting on a flight and getting a hotel room. The hotels
have been sold out for more than a year. Pretty far in advance. It’s one
of the major bottlenecks to Cuba right now. How do you get there and
where do you sleep? There’s a limited amount of hotels that the American
traveler would find sufficient or satisfactory to stay in. A lot of
companies, like insightCuba, we’ve blocked hotels until 2018. It’s so
much easier to travel to Cuba if you go in a small group, because
everything is taken care of.
WP: If people travel to Cuba on their own, they’re expected to keep
records of that travel for five years. What kind of record is
legitimate? Is it more of an honor system?
TP: That’s always been the case for travel to Cuba. Anything incidental
to their travels, any receipts, plane tickets, hotel receipts, meal
receipts. They’re also requiring that travelers keep records of what
type of activity they participated in. And, as it is right now, we are
unaware of OFAC pursuing any travel violations per se for people-to-people.
WP: What if they’re spending a time with, say, a musician or an artist
as a people-to-people interaction, and there’s no exchange of money or a
TP: I think just writing down the person’s name and where they met them
and what they discussed would suffice. Some sort of proof. Oftentimes,
what they’re looking for, if they do ask, is for receipts: Show us what
you spent, where you went. They want to see if you went to an
all-inclusive beach resort. Did you do anything other than check into
the all-inclusive beach resort?
WP: Is there a possibility that this move toward easing travel
restrictions to Cuba could change?
TP: All of these changes since January 16 of last year are indeed
absolutely, 100 percent historic. They’re all being done at the
executive level, which means if there is a new executive in the White
House and they feel differently, there is always the possibility that
these things can be reversed. I think the hope and the strategy is so
much momentum will have swung the other way — you have commercial
airlines, and if you do one day have banks involved, that’ll be very
difficult to reverse the changes. This is one more effort in pushing
that pendulum in that direction.
Source: Americans can plan ‘people-to-people’ trips to Cuba, but what
does that mean? – The Washington Post –