Travel to Cuba, off-limits for most American vacationers since 1963, is closer to becoming a reality.
But before you dream of relaxing in Havana while smoking a Cohiba cigar and drinking a Cuba Libre (commonly known as a rum and Coke), know that pure leisure travel to Cuba so far remains prohibited, despite the travel restrictions that the Treasury Department eased in January for Americans visiting Cuba.
Ferry licenses have already been issued, and some U.S. airlines are applying to fly to the island in anticipation that leisure travel to Cuba will open soon, maybe even this year. But until then, there are only a dozen legal ways to tour the island, says Greg Geronemus, co-chief executive of smarTours, a New York–based guided-tour company.
Academic, professional, or community service and sports event motives are permitted, as are visits to family. But Geronemus, who has traveled to Cuba himself, says the easiest way for the average traveler to visit now is through a “people-to-people” program. Those have been in place since 2011.
Choose a Guided Tour
“The most straightforward way is to go on a people-to-people, all-inclusive package to Cuba,” he says. “You follow a sponsored program where you’re authorized by the tour operator.”
The tour operator pre-books everything, including the required visas, airfare, hotel, and activities. These tours, which start at $2,999 per person (depending on the season), are more special than a typical guided tour because travelers get to interact with residents.
“If we go to a museum, we meet with an artist whose work is in the museum and they show you around,” says Geronemus.
Ready, Get Set …
The travel industry is already gearing up for leisure restrictions to be lifted, says Thomas Spagnola, senior vice president of supplier relations for CheapOair.
American Airlines flies chartered flights to Cuba, and Spirit and Southwest Airlines are among those seeking to serve the island, Spagnola said. Cuba’s Copa Airlines is also gearing up for travel sanctions to lift.
Meanwhile, four- and five-star beach resorts and a number of hotels are cobbling together all-inclusive packages at bargain-basement prices. Remember, too, that Canadians and Mexicans have been booking tourism trips to Cuba for decades. “Right now these [high-end] hotel rooms are between $200 and $400 a night, which is half of what you’d spend elsewhere,” Spagnola says.
Change Is Coming
Not surprisingly, prices in general for Cuba will likely rise once leisure tourism by Americans is allowed, Geronemus notes. Developers have been eyeing opportunities to rebuild Havana, which has been described as a throwback to the 1950s with vintage cars still rumbling the streets.
Thousands of Americans have already traveled to Cuba by side-stepping U.S. regulations and picking up passports by traveling through Canada or Mexico, but industry insiders don’t recommend it.
“Until it’s official, I would wait it [tourism] out to see how things progress,” Spagnola says. “If you look at what’s happened in the last six months, it is moving rapidly.”
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