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Treasury constricts Cuba travel plans

  • Published Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.

In January, exceptions to the 50-year-old embargo against travel to Cuba were announced by the Obama administration, raising hopes that this totally counterproductive policy finally would be phased out.

And yet this past month, those exceptions have been narrowly defined by government officials as to quash the hopes of most Americans that they could finally make such trips. What were the exceptions designed to permit? That travel to Cuba would be permitted for educational, religious or cultural purposes.

Licenses would be issued to U.S. tour operators who submitted plans for tours involving people-to-people contacts in Cuba. Numerous well-known, reputable American travel companies — long-established firms, such as Abercrombie & Kent — applied for the right to bring thousands of American tourists to that country.

And then the U.S. Treasury Department (supervisor of the embargo and the exceptions to it) issued a statement July 25 that "the amended regulations still contain significant travel restrictions, permitting only people-to-people groups that certify that all participants will have a full-time schedule of educational activities between the travelers and Cubans."

In other words, tours to Cuba would be permitted only if participants moved continuously in a group, and met throughout each day as a group with various Cuban counterparts, on a schedule that would be meticulously planned to stay active from morning till night.

Americans touring Cuba would be bused from one meeting to another, from one event and conference to another, unable to interact with Cubans as individuals.

Almost immediately, Abercrombie & Kent canceled its program to Cuba. Having previously announced that virtually every departure was sold out, it now issued news releases about its unwillingness or inability to meet the Treasury Department's requirements.

Other tour operators announced radically increased prices for its tour programs to Cuba, given the need to operate constant activities and meetings for which it would need to pay heavy fees to the Cubans who would actually operate such programs.

The National Geographic Society announced that its 10-day tour program to Cuba would cost $5,000 a person, double occupancy, plus $500 a person for a round-trip charter flights between Miami and Havana.

Each of a couple traveling together would thus pay $5,500 (a total of $11,000 for the two of them) plus the cost of getting to Miami.

Almost as bad, the well-regarded Insight Cuba, a division of the long-established Cross Cultural Solutions, announced that its seven-night programs to Cuba would have to cost a minimum of $2,500 a person in off-season, $2,800 in winter, for its least-expensive program, and $400 to $500 a person more for its next most expensive program, all plus the cost of round-trip charter air transportation between Miami and Havana.

Assuming a $500 price for those flights from Miami, the average participant would pay at least $3,200 to $3,600 a person this winter for a seven-night tour of Cuba, plus the cost of traveling to Miami.

And almost as bad as the cost is the transformation that the Treasury Department's rules bring about in the nature of travel to Cuba. Participants will have no opportunity to interact with Cubans. They will travel everywhere in a group — and no individual Cubans will strike up a conversation with a group. The rewards of travel — experiencing the authentic life of the community, meeting with individuals one-on-one, discussing issues — will be totally lost if the various tour operators feel compelled to obey the Treasury Department's strictures.

I earlier referred to the travel embargo against Cuba as counterproductive. It angers many Cubans. It feeds into the Castro brothers' constant reference to an alleged American animus toward the Cuban people. It keeps the Castros in power.

Cuba today is thronged with tourists from Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain — from everywhere except America. This cannot help but color the Cuban attitude toward the United States. It's unfortunate that Treasury Department officials, reacting to pressures from Florida interest groups, should halt what otherwise began as an intelligent reversal of a counterproductive policy.

Arthur Frommer is the pioneering founder of the Frommer's Travel Guide book series. He co-hosts the radio program, "The Travel Show," with his travel correspondent daughter Pauline Frommer.

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