Last spring, when the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to Cuba, it marked what many believed was the opening of a new frontier for travel to the island country that, for 50 years, has been all but forbidden for most Americans to visit under the longstanding trade embargo. But the “people-to-people” program put in place by the Obama administration, which focuses on educational travel with a government-licensed operator, now appears to be on hold.
Dozens of tour operators, which as of September 7 included such well-known organizations as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic Expeditions, and Insight Cuba, with which I traveled to Cuba last summer, are still awaiting permits. Some groups, including the nonprofit Insight Cuba, have been forced to lay off staff, cancel trips (22 and 150, respectively, in the case of Insight Cuba), and refund customers’ money.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, which handles permits for travel to Cuba, claims it’s processing renewals as fast as it can and that it’s issued 140 people-to-people licenses. But some tour operators and experts in travel to Cuba are scratching their heads, noting that OFAC itself has made it even harder to obtain renewals thanks to a revision of their guidelines, which was announced in May. In addition, some note that the delay coincides with an election year, and the politically charged issue of U.S./Cuba relations is playing a role.
In other words, the complex saga of Americans traveling legally to Cuba continues.
This latest development, which is undoubtedly disappointing and frustrating for both tour operators and travelers with Cuba on their bucket lists, first came to light with a column by Detroit Free Press travel writer Ellen Creager (with whom I traveled to Cuba last August). In an e-mail to the Free Press that appears identical to others later issued to other media outlets, OFAC claims that it aims to respond to permit applications “in a timely matter.”
Part of the problem is the tightened restrictions on Cuba travel, which, according to e-mailed comments from Jeff Braunger, program manager for Treasury Department Cuba Travel Licensing, resulted in part to “reports we received concerning travel under the licenses.”
Partially as a result, the application/renewal document has expanded from six pages to about 100. Tour operators also have to document every hour of every day of their itineraries in Cuba to ensure that they are complying with the strict “people-to-people” component of the regulations, and not engaging in typical tourist activities (i.e., afternoons full of mojitos and Cuban cigars on the beach).
The bottom line: For the many tour operators waiting for permit renewals, as well as travelers hoping to visit Cuba, the wait continues. And for anybody who wants to visit a traditionally "forbidden" country such as Cuba, this latest wrinkle underscores an important reminder for adventurous souls: When a window opens to go somewhere that has traditionally been restricted, act fast, before it starts to close again.