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Americans Traveling to Cuba

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AMERICANS TRAVELING TO CUBA

As an aid to our U. S. customers wishing to travel to Cuba, here are some excerpts from the Cuba Handbook authored by Christopher P. Baker.   These items indicate the United States position with regard to American citizens traveling to Cuba, including some of the  travel options available to you.

Contrary to popular belief, US law does not prohibit US citizens from visiting Cuba. However, tourism is effectively banned by the Trading With the Enemy Act, which prohibits US citizens from spending money there.  

The Cubans have no restrictions on US tourists. On the contrary; they welcome US visitors with open arms. The Cubans are savvy—they won't stamp your passport. As many as 60,000 US citizens visited Cuba in 1995; only about 20% did so legally, while the rest slipped in through third countries.  

The regulations change frequently. For the latest provisions, contact the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), US Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C. 20200, tel. (202) 622-2520. Request the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. The Treasury Department maintains an online home site describing the various categories at www.cntraveler.com/code/cuba.html. 

The following regulations applied to US citizens and residents at press time (the text is reprinted verbatim from a US State Department bulletin issued in March 1996):

The US Department of the Treasury's Cuban Assets Control Regulations . . . require that persons subject to US jurisdiction traveling to and within Cuba need a Department of the Treasury license in order to buy goods (a meal at a hotel, for example) or services (an airline ticket, tour package, or hotel room).

The following categories of travelers are permitted to spend money for Cuban travel without the need to obtain special permission from the US Treasury Department:  

  • Official Government Travelers. US and foreign government officials, including representatives of international organizations of which the United States is a member, who are traveling on official business.
  • Journalists regularly employed in such capacity by a news reporting organization.
  •  Persons who are visiting to visit close relatives in Cuba in circumstances of extreme humanitarian need. This authorization is valid without a specific license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control only once every 12 months.

Special licenses may be issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control on a case by case basis authorizing travel transactions by persons in connection with the following travel categories:  

Humanitarian Travel. Persons traveling to Cuba (1) to visit close relatives in cases involving extreme hardship, such as terminal illness or severe medical emergency, (2) persons traveling to Cuba to accompany licensed humanitarian donations (other than gift parcels), or (3) persons traveling in connection with activities of recognized human rights organizations investigating specific human rights violations.  

Travel in connection with professional research or similar activities, for clearly defined educational or religious activities, or for purposes related to the exportation, importation, or transmission of informational materials, including provision of telecommunications services.  

Except as specifically licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, payments in connection with any other travel to Cuba are prohibited, whether travelers go directly or via a third country such as Mexico, Canada, or another Caribbean island.  

"Fully hosted" travel to Cuba is not restricted, provided that the travel is not aboard a direct flight between the United States and Cuba. A fully hosted traveler may pay for transportation only if aboard a non-Cuban carrier. Travelers whose expenses are covered by a person not subject to US jurisdiction may not bring back any Cuban origin goods, except for informational materials.

What You May Buy: Money may be spent only for purchases of items directly related to travel such as hotel accommodations, meals, and goods personally used by the traveler in Cuba at a rate not to exceed $100 per day or for the purchase of $100 worth of Cuban merchandise to be brought into the United States as accompanied baggage. Purchases of services related to travel, such as nonemergency medical services, are prohibited . . . The purchase of publications and other informational material is not restricted in any way.

A Range of Options

Many ordinary US citizens and residents can also qualify for official travel status as "researchers." The law states that "Specific licenses for transactions related to travel to, from, and within Cuba may be issued for persons engaging in professional research and similar activities" (my emphasis). Several organizations are licensed to offer educational trips and can assist you to meet qualification requirements.  

In addition, "Specific licenses will be issued to persons for travel to Cuba for clearly defined educational activities . . . attendance at a meeting or conference . . . activities related to study for an undergraduate or graduate degree sponsored by a college or university located in the United States."  

Prior to October 1995, when the process became even more politicized as to who would be granted licenses, freelance journalists could travel to Cuba without asking Uncle Sam's permission. Now they, too, need a license, thereby allowing the US government to veto the entry of particular journalists. 

If you want to go it alone and try the "journalist" or "researcher" angle, write to the Licensing Division, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Department of the Treasury, 1331 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20220, tel. (202) 376-0922. The Treasury Department requires a written statement of why your proposed trip falls within the rules for permissible travel. If your story is convincing, you should get approval in two or three months.  

You may also travel legally by booking a prepaid, all-inclusive package with companies such as Wings of the World.  

A far simpler alternative, the route chosen by the vast majority of US visitors to Cuba—is to forget the legal restrictions and simply go!

Will You Be Fined?

Trading with Cuba is good for up to a US$250,000 fine and 10 years in prison, but arresting people for merely vacationing in Cuba is not high on the US government's list of priorities. To my knowledge, no one has been prosecuted merely for going to Cuba and spending money there as a tourist.

GETTING IN

BY AIR

Cuba's tourism boom is fueling an increase in traffic on the 40 airlines that service Cuba. Charters account for about 90% of arrivals. Leading international carriers have regular scheduled service from Europe, Canada, and Central and South America, and more are being added. If you want flexibility, choose your airline carefully—some are notoriously accommodating, others not. The US government bans flights between the US and Cuba, and all flights to and from Cuba are forbidden from using US airspace.
  Cuba has a well-developed air transport network, with six international airports: Camagüey (Ignacio Agramonte), Cayo Coco, Havana (José Martí International), Holguín (Frank País Airport), Santiago de Cuba (Antonio Maceo Airport), and Varadero (Juan Gualberto Gómez). Most flights land at either Havana or Varadero, with Santiago and Holguín (which serves the beaches of Guardalavaca and Santa Lucía) of secondary importance.

NOTE from ForCuba.com: To take full advantage of our holiday specials, we recommend that people from all US points can go to Cuba via Toronto and Montreal at reasonable rates.  We can also book flights from Clagary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Halifax into Varadero.

Practicalities

Ensure that you make your reservation as early as possible (several months in advance would be ideal), especially during peak season, as flights are often oversold. Always reconfirm your reservation within 72 hours of your departure (reservations are frequently canceled if not reconfirmed, especially during Dec.-Jan. holidays), and arrive at the airport with at least two hours to spare. Avoid reservations that leave little time for connections - baggage transfers and Customs and immigration procedures may take more time than planned.
I recommend using a travel agent for reservations (most do not charge a fee, but instead derive their income from commissions already figured into the airlines' fee). The agent's computer will display most of the options, usually including seat availability and current fares, and they have the responsibility to chase down refunds in the event of overbooking, cancellations, etc.  

Note:  ForCuba.com can handle all your booking arrangements for Cuba.  Also, since Mr. Baker's book went to press many improvements have been made to the booking process.  There are now occassional last minute reservation scenario's available.

Cubana de Aviación

Cuba's national airline is Cubana de Aviación, which celebrated its 70th anniversary.  Cubana's do not currently operate flights in or out of the US.   After the US embargo was imposed, the airline's vintage Bristol Britannia planes were replaced by Soviet-made aircraft, including 32-passenger Yak-40s, 120-passenger Yak-42s, 156-passenger TU-154s, and 168-passenger IL-62s with the same seat spacing arrangements found on western jets.   Cubana recently added several 44-passenger Fokker-27s, plus two 309-passenger DC-10s.  In 2000, the airline introduced European made Airbus A320 service on the Toronto - Havana & Toronto - Varadero routes.  The airline also offers First Class (Clase Tropical) service on these flights at a small premium over the coach fare.

At press time, Cubana offered regular scheduled service between Cuba and Barcelona, Berlin, Bogotá, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Cancún, Caracas, Fort de France, Frankfurt, Guayaquíl, Kingston, Las Palmas, Lima, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Mendoza, Mexico City, Montréal, Moscow, Panama City, Paris, Puerto Pitre, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, San José (Costa Rica), Santiago de Chile, Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Sao Paulo, and Toronto. Additional services are slated. Cubana offers charter flights between Cuba and Buenos Aires, Cologne, Gran Cayman, Guadalajara, Lisbon, Madrid, Mexico City, Montego Bay, Montevideo, Nassau, Paris, Quito, Santiago de Chile, Santo Domingo, Toronto, and Veracruz.
  

Cubana's attitude toward scheduled departures is cavalier—flight times change frequently. But its safety record is good. Ensure that you check in on time on your day of departure; the airline is notorious for disposing of seats of passengers who arrive after the scheduled check-in time.  Overhead bins are smaller than in US- and European-made planes. Often, you'll find people smoking on nonsmoking flights.
Cubana's fares are generally lower than other airlines'.

From Europe

Several airlines fly direct to Cuba from Europe (or with a refueling stop at Gander, in Canada, en route). American Airlines, British Airways, Continental, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic fly from London to Miami, where you can connect with an airline to the Bahamas, and from there to Cuba (see "From the Caribbean," below). Note, however, that if flying aboard a US carrier, you will have to make your reservation for the Bahamas-Cuba leg separately.
 

Central America

In the 1960s, Latin American airlines suspended scheduled flights to Cuba under US pressure. Today, the rush is on, and flights—many of which are booked solid—serve Cuba from a dozen destinations. Reservations cannot be booked through US travel agencies and tour operators.
From Mexico: Mexicana and Aeromexico, both operate scheduled service to Cuba from Mexico City.
Cubana offers service from Mexico City on Wednesday and Saturday and from Cancún daily.  It also has service from Cancún to Varadero on Monday.
Aero Caribbean has service between Mérida and Havana on Friday and Sunday.
Warning: Ostensibly, you need to buy a Cuban visa before boarding the aircraft; Mexican operators have you at their mercy and gouge accordingly—sometimes asking US$50 or more! (They'll also try to insist that you make reservations for at least two nights' accommodation.) Note that, for the return leg, you must obtain your tourist card for Mexico before arriving at Havana airport, where tourist cards are not issued; you can obtain one from the Mexican embassy at Calle 12 #518, Miramar, Havana, tel. 33-0856.
 

From the Caribbean

From the Bahamas: Cubana offers charter flights to Havana from Nassau on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Departure times change frequently.
Returning from Cuba, you pass through Bahamian immigration (there is no in-transit lounge). Don't mention to Bahamian Customs that you're in transit from Cuba, as they go "on notice" and will likely search your bags. The departure terminal for flights to the US is next door (to the left of the exit from the arrivals hall). You must pass through US Immigration and Customs here. If you're a US citizen, they won't know that you've been in Cuba unless you tell them (although I suspect that the immigration forms handed in to Bahamian officials may be passed on to US immigration). However, US officials will ask you where you stayed in the Bahamas and how long. If you choose to tell the truth, expect to be searched (and to have your Cuban purchases confiscated); if you choose not to tell the truth, you'll be expected to name the Bahamas hotel where you stayed; any hesitation may give the game away.
From the Dominican Republic: Cubana has charter service to Havana from Santo Domingo on Thursday (via Santiago) and Sunday.
Aero Caribbean and AeroGaviota, also operate twice-weekly flights between Puerto Plata and Santiago and Havana.
From Jamaica: Cubana has scheduled flights to Havana from Kingston on Wednesday and Saturday and charter service to Varadero and Havana from Montego Bay on Friday and Sunday. Several Jamaican tour companies utilize these flights.
InterCaribe, has a charter flight to Santiago de Cuba from Kingston on Friday, returning on Sunday. It also has flights to Havana from Kingston, departing on Wednesday.
The national commuter airline, Air Jamaica Express, was considering opening routes to Cuba.  For the latest information, contact Air Jamaica, tel. (800) 523-5585 in the US; in Jamaica, tel. (809) 929-0834, fax (809) 929-0833.
From Elsewhere: Cubana operates charter service between Havana and Sint Maarten, Fort-de-France in Martinique (Friday), and Pointe-a-Pitre in Guadeloupe (Friday). And it plans to add service to Bridgetown (Barbados).

BY CRUISE SHIP

The US embargo has restricted the cruise industry's access to Cuba. No US company can operate cruises to Cuba, and because foreign-owned vessels cannot dock in the US within six months of visiting Cuba or carrying Cuban passengers or goods, even foreign companies have shunned Cuba—until recently.

The Italian company Costa Crociere initiated cruises to Cuba in October 1995 by forming a separate company—Costa Cruceros, Costa Crociere, Via D'Annunzio, 2-16121 Genova, Italy, and repositioning its Ocean Pearl, a 500-passenger vessel which it renamed Costa Playa. The vessel departs from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic every Tuesday at 8 p.m. and stops at Montego Bay, Jamaica, Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and Nipe, in Cuba. The cruises are operated in association with the French cruise company Paquet. You can also take the eight-day cruise package starting from and returning to Havana (departures every Friday).  Prices are all-inclusive (even tips are included), which means that US citizens can legally take the cruise, so long as they don't spend money in Cuba or tip the ship's Cuban staff. Shore excursions are additional. Air-sea packages are offered from Madrid each Tuesday, year-round.  

Likewise, in November 1996, Cuba launched the Meliá Don Juan, with 203 staterooms and nine deluxe suites. The vessel is operated under a management contract by Spain's Meliá Hoteles, in Cuba, tel. 53-5-667013, fax 55-5-667162; in Italy, tel. 016-701-1692, fax 039-605-8063; in Germany, tel. 01-302301, fax, 02131-63467; in the UK, tel. 800-282720, fax 171-916-3431. It departs Cienfuegos each Friday for a three-day cruise to Cayo Largo and Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands), and each Monday for a four-day cruise to Cayman Brac (Cayman Islands), Santiago de Cuba, and Montego Bay (Jamaica). You can take the weeklong cruise, and even board the vessel in Grand Cayman on Saturday or in Montego Bay on Thursday.

Contact ForCuba.com for additional information on cruises that include Cuba as part of their itineraries.

ORGANIZED TOURS

Joining an organized tour offers certain advantages over traveling independently, such as the learning passed along by a knowledgeable guide. Tours are also good bets for those with limited time: you'll proceed to the most interesting places without the unforeseen delays and distractions that can be the bane of independent travel. Everything is usually taken care of from your arrival to your departure, including transportation and accommodations. The petty bureaucratic hassles and language problems you may otherwise not wish to face are eliminated, too. And several companies buy hotel rooms and airline seats in bulk, then pass the savings on to you.  

Most organized tours to Cuba focus on the cultural and historical experience, although a growing number focus on special-interest travel. Check the tour inclusions carefully to identify any hidden costs such as airport taxes, tips, service charges, extra meals, and entertainment. Most tours are priced according to quality of accommodation, from deluxe to budget.  

Most US organizations that offer trips to Cuba are not accredited tour and travel operators and do not offer consumer-protection programs. However, all operators in Canada and the United Kingdom offering tours to Cuba must by law guarantee full repayment in the case of default. Consider trip cancellation insurance. Paying for your tour by credit card is a good idea; in the event of a serious complaint you can challenge the charge.  

Within Cuba, there are several state-run tour agencies that offer organized excursions and tours to all the major sites and attractions. Most are up to Western levels of efficiency and service. English-speaking guides, private transportation, meals, and accommodations are standard inclusions. This gives you the added flexibility of making your own tour arrangements once you've arrived in Cuba and gained a better sense of your options and desires.

US Citizens Traveling to Cuba

Fortunately, US citizens can legally travel to Cuba on certain organized tours. Organizations that arrange trips to Cuba are required to obtain special government authorized licenses.  

Most programs are "study" tours that provide a deep immersion in particular aspects of Cuban life and issues. While the focus of most tours is educational, there's usually plenty of time for relaxation. By joining such groups you'll enjoy the advantage of coming to understand a little more of Cuba, perhaps, than would the average tourist. Participants usually have to demonstrate serious interest in the subject of study; in reality, this often proves a formality, especially in the realm of "arts," where the State Dept. accepts that it is difficult for artists to make a living as professionals.

Conventional Tours from Other Countries

(Contact ForCuba.com or e-mail us about regular Tour possiblities to Cuba.  See the information on charter airlines in this section for companies offering tour packages from Canada, Mexico, and other destinations.)

Ecotours

Cuba has clichéd beaches, but it also has bush. Ecotourism has come late to the Caribbean, and not least to Cuba, which depends heavily on resort-based, sun-seeking tourists. Despite its vast acreage in national parks and the diversity of its landscapes, Cuba's ecotourism potential remains virtually untapped. Cuba has very few naturalist guides. And so-called "eco-lodges" are mostly merely lodges set in wilderness areas. But a beginning has been made, such as at the stunning Moka Eco-Hotel in Pinar del Río province.  Ecotourism is beginning to rise in Cuba due to the eco-sensitive tide.
  
Delta Cuba Hotels & Resorts, Toronto, Canada offers an all-inclusive seven-day eco-tour utilizing four eco-lodges in Oriente. Highlights include a jeep ride into the Sierra Maestra and Sierra de Nipe for hiking and horseback riding.

Heritage and Culture Tours

Every moment in Cuba is a fascinating study in cultural anthropology. Nonetheless, you can make a more serious study of things on numerous organized tours.  Contact ForCuba.com about the availablility of Heritage or Cultural Tours to Cuba.

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