Ever since the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba earlier this year, American interest in visiting the island nation has surged. Online searches for travel to Cuba from the U.S. jumped 184 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to a study by marketing firm Sojern. The result? Tour operators that offer legal “people-to-people” educational trips to Cuba are scrambling to add more dates and itineraries, while other groups that never offered Cuba travel before are creating trips for the first time.
Of course, the doors to Cuba haven’t been completely flung open. Americans can visit the Caribbean island nation only if they fall into one of the 12 approved categories for travel, which range from family visits to journalistic work to educational exchanges. But President Barack Obama did ease certain restrictions in January. Before, Americans were required, in most cases, to apply for a license in one of the 12 categories before visiting Cuba. Now, they can simply self-affirm that they fall into one of those groups.
But perhaps more crucially, the organizations that can lead educational people-to-people trips -- the most common form of entry for Americans who don’t have specific ties to Cuba -- have seen the removal of a significant barrier to entry. While Americans still can’t visit Cuba for pure leisure, people-to-people programs have allowed them to visit under the category of educational exchanges.
“Dozens of new players are getting in the game, made easier by the fact that none of these entities need to request a specific license anymore to offer such trips,” said Christopher T. Baker, a travel writer and Cuba expert who has visited the country more than 100 times.
Before January, organizations offering people-to-people trips were required to apply for a license from the U.S. Department of Treasury. It was an onerous process that typically involved attorneys, lots of paperwork, about six months of waiting and no guarantee that a license would be granted in the end.
“President Obama has now granted a general license for these activities. That means that any organization can put on an educational trip -- they don’t require prior permission,” said William LeoGrande, co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana” and a professor at American University.
While it’s difficult to quantify exactly how many new tour operators are adding trips, LeoGrande says that online search results for Cuba trips have mushroomed since the relaxation of rules, a sign that more players are joining the ranks at the same time that previous operators are expanding their business.
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a company that has offered people-to-people programs since 2000, told Travel Weekly in April: “Demand for Cuba is spiking beyond expectations. The cycle just keeps growing. In the three months since the Obama announcement, we have doubled and tripled our numbers. We do 125 to 130 group departures in a typical year; we’re beyond 170 now and looking at 184 in 2016.”
Baker, who has led many people-to-people tours in the past, consults with organizations to help them create educational itineraries for Cuba trips. One of the companies he works with, adventure travel operator Row Adventures, was denied a license when it applied for one from Treasury two years ago. Baker says the company is now moving forward with a Cuba trip it plans to offer later in 2015.
Discover Corps, a company that creates “volunteer vacations” in Africa, Asia and Latin America, is another tour operator taking advantage of the relaxed rule. Soon after Obama’s announcement in December, the company planned its first trip to Cuba in April.
“The rules were definitely a barrier to entry before,” said Discover Corps travel specialist Alex DuBois. “We had been talking about going to Cuba, and when we saw the regulations change, we did it.”
Discover Corps plans to keep adding trips. “We’re hoping to offer at least once a month,” said DuBois. “Demand has been growing.”
However, just because prior permission is no longer required for such tour operators doesn’t mean the trips they arrange won’t be subject to scrutiny. They must keep records in case they are audited by the Treasury Department later to ensure they are in compliance with the requirements of an educational trip. (Trips must include a significant amount of scheduled educational activity with the tour group, among other things.)
But LeoGrande doesn’t expect the scrutiny to be particularly fierce. “The Office of Foreign Assets Control is very understaffed to police this stuff. My guess is that because they’re bureaucrats, they’ve been told to go light on it,” he said. “But that’s a hunch. It could change tomorrow.”