The door to Cuba has been slammed shut so long, it's hard to recognize it opening.
But it is.
American tour companies this summer should be able to legally offer "people-to-people" cultural trips to Cuba to anyone.
Due to a slight easing in U.S. travel restrictions that have been in place for 48 years, these trips will showcase culture and interactions with Cuban artists and citizens.
"They still don't want people going for an inclusive resort beach vacation — that goes against the spirit of the regulations because it's propping up the regime and doesn't benefit regular people," says Tom Popper, CEO of the tour company Insight Cuba. "But Cuba has so much more to offer than the beaches."
Insight Cuba and other vendors are awaiting licenses so they can start offering trips. Insight Cuba (www.insightcuba.com) has planned 115 trips of three, seven or eight nights to run by April 2012, but it can't offer a thing until the license comes through.
Departures are from Miami, on charter aircraft. Havana is only 30 minutes by air.
The main question people ask about Cuba, Popper says, "'Is it OK to walk around?' Yes, of course."
The embargo against Cuba has been in force since 1963. Until 1977, virtually no American could visit. That was later softened so people with family there, religious groups or academic researchers could visit. Even people to people cultural trips were allowed briefly from 2000-03 under a Clinton administration program.
"We had a license, and we operated these absolutely legal, incredibly rich programs," Popper says. But then the Bush administration shut them down for the next seven years. Insight Cuba shut down, too.
Now, the people to people exemption has reopened.
Of course, Americans have been sneaking into Cuba for years through third countries. But if you're caught, you can be fined.
"It's estimated that 200,000 Americans travel to Cuba illegally every year through Mexico or Canada," says Popper. "But most travelers don't want to take that kind of risk. So this is an in credible opportunity to go to Cuba. We don't know how long it will be open."
He believes there's a pent-up demand. Forbidden fruit, a mysterious land, so close to our shores — all those enticements are at play.
"People are so intrigued. Cuba is so close geographically and so culturally familiar," he says. "Once people get there, it's about the intriguing and romantic and fantastic atmosphere, the people, not all about Fidel Castro and communism. It's a warm and gentle people. Life exists there on a grand scale. It's like going back in time. So much of Cuba is untouched. You go and feel like it is Cancun in 1977. It hasn't been homogenized."
So, go to Cuba this year. When tour companies get their Cuba licenses within the next month or so, you'll hear the ads beckoning you there.