The first Cuba-bound "People-to-People" trips since 2003 flew out of Miami, Florida Thursday, August 11.
The inaugural tours are booked through Insight Cuba, which operated people-to-people exchanges in Cuba from 2000 to 2003, when the Bush administration banned almost all American civilian travel to the country as a way of shoring up the U.S. embargo.
Cuba has been off-limits to the everyday American for decades because of a trade embargo that doesn't allow U.S. citizens without family members on the island to spend money in Cuba. In recent years, only educators, journalists and members of religious exchange programs have been granted visas in the country.
But, as of January 2011, the Obama administration has not only allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island if they can get visas from Cuba, but he also announced guidelines allowing other Americans to visit Cuba if they engage in "purposeful travel.''
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The U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) defines purposeful travel as:
"A full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba. Authorized activities by People-to-People Groups are not 'tourist activities' under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which prohibits OFAC from licensing travel-related transactions for tourist activities."
Along with Insight Cuba, the U.S. Treasury Department has approved licenses for 35 organizations to arrange trips to bring Americans and Cubans together to support civil society and the free flow of information.
The exchange program is still under close surveillance as it re-starts, but tour leaders have already experienced an over flow of excited Americans ready to enter the country that has been taboo for so long. Insight tours like "Havana & Colonial Trinidad," "Havana & Scenic Pinar del Rio" and "Cuban Music & Art Experience" are three of more than 130 people-to-people outings planed for the next year.
Groups will have a chance to interact with Cuban art, cuisine, culture and daily life during structured, educational outings that include trips to Old Havana, churches, art and cultural museums, schools and orphanages. Some trips also include sitting in on a meeting of a neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, talking with tobacco farmers and watching a baseball game of Havana's Industriales team.
Insight tours for a long weekend in Havana start at about $1,600, not including airfare.
Nay-sayers of the program believe it is only a thinly-veiled tourism venture that will pump more US dollars into the Castro economy.
"Cuba is a totalitarian society where every aspect of life, for residents and visitors, is controlled by a communist dictatorship which has also been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government,'' said Republican representative David Rivera of South Florida . "The type of travel being pushed by the Obama administration only serves to strengthen the Castro regime by providing hard currency resources to maintain its oppressive government."
For now the U.S. government is keeping a close eye on the tours, which go through a rigorous certification process, and more companies like Abercrombie & Kent and Vantage Deluxe World Travel are expected to begin people-to-people exchanges as soon as they receive the all-clear.