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Monday, January 26, 2015

Cuba: More than Jazz and Cigars

One month after President Obama ordered the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the US Treasury and Commerce departments issued new, more lenient rules outlining how Americans can legally travel to the country. While access to Cuba still isn’t wide-open, these new regulations allow Americans to visit more easily than at any time in the last fifty years, which is very exciting.
With all of this excitement comes a very necessary examination of the facts. As it has become easier, there are still a few issues- it still isn’t as simple as packing your bags, grabbing your passport and getting on a flight. Here are a few things that all ardent travelers should know before they begin planning their trip to Cuba:

As an American, if you wish to visit Cuba for one of the twelve purposes laid out by the United States, you can now do so without having to apply for a license.

The twelve categories of legal travel include visits to relatives, academic programs (students must be receiving academic credits), professional research, people-to-people trips, religious or journalism related activities, and participation in sporting events/ performances.

In the past, permission was granted on a case-by-case basis. It was a process that could take months, and could be rejected for any number of reasons. Now, travelers will be able to use boxes on a checklist to describe the nature of their trip, as provided by customs. They will still be required to present a full itinerary of their scheduled travel plans to prove their selected category of travel. Travelers should also note that they are required to save all of their receipts from travel transactions and expenses for five years upon returning to the United States.

General tourism is still banned by the embargo.

People-to-people trips” is a phrase that has been flying around the media lately as a suggested means to travel to Cuba. What does it really mean, and what is involved in arranging this? In the most basic sense, these are highly regulated tour groups. People-to-people trips serve as educational programs, so they fall into one of the twelve categories of travel. It gives the traveler the opportunity to interact with locals and learn about the culture of the island. Under old regulations, they were approved more easily, as the traveler’s itinerary was laid out by a Cuban resident. These trips can be expensive ($4,000 USD per week is the norm), but include accommodations, flights, tours and lectures.

Air travel is also changing to accommodate these new travel standards. Flights to Cuba had previously been operated by licensed charter companies via Miami (they will continue to do so), but there are talks about re-opening air-traffic routes between New York and Havana at some point in the future.

New air travel regulations state that any American commercial airline can operate flights to Cuba, and so far, American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta have shown the most interest in starting these programs. Aviation authorities have estimated, though, that it could take up to a year to negotiate agreements between the two countries’ air controllers. What is the alternative for immediate travel? Eager travelers can get a non-American flight through a third country to gain access to Cuba- like through Mexico or Panama.

Since tourism in Cuba has been restricted for so long, visitors might notice a lack of high-end hotels. As the number of visitors is expected to increase significantly in the next few years, the ministry of tourism in Cuba has begun investing time and money into improving their available accommodations. It is said that there are presently about 60,000 hotel rooms throughout the country, with many of them not available because they are in need of renovations or repairs. Travel experts estimate that Cuba should consider adding at least 150,000 more rooms to prepare for the surge of new visitors.

If you do intend to travel to Cuba somewhat soon, an alternative to these high-end hotels is to make a reservation at a bed and breakfast. Also known as casas particulares, these alternative accommodations will provide the visitor with a chance to interact with locals on a level much deeper than at a regular hotel. There are plenty of them located throughout Havana and other larger cities.

Before these new regulations, Americans visiting Cuba were not permitted to use any sort of credit or debit card to pay for expenses while on their trip. Now, Americans don’t have to pay for their entire trip in cash, as they can use their cards to cover tabs. Great deal for Americans, who don’t have to feel unsafe about carrying so much cash, and also great for Cuban businesses, as visitors are more likely to spend more with access to “virtual funds”, and pay for it later.

In the past, there was a cap that Americans were only permitted to spend $188 USD per day while in Cuba (including hotels, meals, etc.) which has also been lifted. The traveler might want to return with a keepsake of some sort. New rules state that Americans are permitted to bring back up to $400 USD worth of souvenirs, including $100 USD worth of cigars and tobacco.

Travelers should be aware that American cell phones don’t work in Cuba, and that internet and Wi-Fi is rare. The White House has commented that Internet penetration rates on the island are some of the lowest in the world, and that improved telecommunications is on the list of new policy goals.

"...spots blend old with the new, as well
as locals with the visitors."
What does Cuba have to offer the traveler?
If you are willing to be flexible and make arrangements in line with the new regulations, Cuba has so much to offer the traveler.
For the nature lover, Cuba has more than 300 beaches, providing access to both the Atlantic and Caribbean. White sand, uncrowded surf and lots of water adventure- like scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming with dolphins- is available. For the land lovers, there are caves, mountains and numerous hiking trails to be explored, as well as birdwatching tours and beautiful scenery provided by the landscape.

Music and art are an important part of Cuban culture. Live music can be found throughout many bars at just about any time of day. Famous for jazz, salsa and merengue, music is everywhere. Art lovers will also find a variety of genres of work- from mosaics and tile work, to painting and charcoal drawings. Collections range from traditional to modern.
History lovers will enjoy the old buildings and cars that are found throughout the cities of Cuba. Visitors will notice that there are an abundance of American cars from the 1950’s. After Fidel Castro became president in 1959, he required that Cubans seek government permission to purchase a new foreign car, so these American classics are common.  Architecture also provides the visitor with a perspective on Cuban history, with nine UNESCO heritage sites throughout the island. Military bases and forts remain preserved for travelers to see firsthand.

Lastly, the cuisine of Cuba is something for all visitors to enjoy. Paladares, or privately-owned family restaurants are popular, and again provide the visitor with an intimate look at Cuban culture. Often run out of the chef’s home, these unique dining spots blend the old with the new, as well as the locals with the visitors.
For those travelers who have had Cuba on their “bucket list” for too long, these new regulations may provide them the opportunity to finally make this trip a reality. This is an exciting time to attempt to gain access to the island, as both Cubans and Americans are actively engaged in discussions about relations between the two countries. Hospitality is a value in Cuban culture, despite Cuban-American relations. The Cuban people may be as eager to teach Americans about their culture and heritage as Americans are eager to be on the island- a win for both parties involved.

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