After a summer of waiting and wondering, several prominent tour operators have received their government licenses or renewals to resume travel to Cuba.
Organizations that recently received the go-ahead from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which issues licenses for travel to Cuba, include Insight Cuba; Friendly Planet Travel; Geographic Expeditions; MotoDiscovery, which offers motorcycle tours led by Cuba expert and guidebook author Christopher P. Baker; and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD), a nonprofit that supports reconciliation between the U.S. and Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba.
Prompted by "reports of abuse," OFAC earlier this year tightened its guidelines on the “people-to-people” program, which was announced by President Obama in early 2011. The program opens up travel to Cuba for virtually any American but requires traveling with a licensed operator and a focus on educational, cultural travel.
The restrictions resulted in extensive backlogs and OFAC delays in issuing licenses, causing operators to cancel tours and, in some cases, lay off staff, while raising the question of whether the door for Americans to travel legally to Cuba had been closed yet again.
With the latest batch of renewals, it appears to be open for now, but no one knows for how long. The program’s future may very well ride on the outcome of November's presidential election. Earlier in his career, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan had supported ending the Cuba trade embargo, but Republicans "specifically oppose" easing travel restrictions while the Castro family remains in power, as reported by USA Today.
And so it bears repeating once again: If you’re interested in traveling to Cuba legally, start planning now. However, as I’ve written before, the authorized trips may not be for everyone. During my trip to Cuba in August 2011, our itinerary was tightly controlled, though I did manage to work in some free time exploring Havana with a few others in my group. I can only imagine that after OFAC’s tightening of its restrictions, schedules are even more regimented nowadays.
Still, licensed operators can offer the advantage of providing visitors access they otherwise wouldn’t have, such as a tour of a local health care facility or music school. As Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, notes on her blog: “ … in reality, for [people] who travel because they love to explore new places for the purpose of meeting people in other lands, understanding how they live, what’s important to them, and being able to share the same about themselves, the people-to-people tours provide a perfect opportunity.”
FRD executive director John McAuliff, a longtime proponent of opening up travel to Cuba for all Americans, notes that while OFAC's turnaround is "tremendously important" - FRD, in fact, was denied a license six times in a year-and-a-half until it was issued one – "the underlying problem remains" when it comes to granting licenses to Cuba.
"The language of the letter we received from OFAC could just as easily been used for another denial without prejudice, based on its subjective judgement [sic] about what constitutes, 'a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba'," McAuliff said in an e-mail.
In other words, let's cross our fingers for future legislation that makes sense – and makes Cuba accessible for all travelers.