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I’ve always known about the existence of legal tours to Cuba for American citizens, namely those that cost upwards of $5,000 per person. However, I didn’t know of any reasonably priced ones until last week. I was reading an article from the Washington Post in which the author wrote about her recent trip to Cuba through the tour outfitter, Friendly Planet Travel (FPT). FPT is a wholesale operator that has been leading tours all over the world for 30 years. I first became familiar with them when investigating their Taj Mahal Express tour, but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to go on a tour to India whose name included the word “express,” considering the long flight to get there and the subsequent jet lag.
For Americans to travel to Cuba legally, they must go with a company or organization that has been issued a license by the Department of the Treasury and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which authorizes them to organize and operate People to People programs. The licenses began under President Bill Clinton in 1999 but were stopped being issued in 2003 under travel restrictions imposed by President George W. Bush. But in early 2011 President Obama enacted policy changes designed to encourage more contact between Americans and Cubans. Traveling there is not the same as if you were going to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. The focus is on meeting Cuban people, interacting with them beyond just asking a drink waiter for another mojito. Guidelines published by the Treasury Department say the tours must “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” So relaxing on the beaches of Varadero the entire time is not an option.
I did become immensely intrigued with their Cuba tour and saw that FPT actually offers two to the Caribbean’s Forbidden Fruit. Colors of Cuba is an eight day tour that visits the capital of Havana as well as the cities of Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Las Terrazas, and Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Each day brings visits to places like local schools, businesses, and orphanages, all aimed at adhering to and promoting the People to People stipulation of the treasury license. Most 2012 dates are already sold out, although those that remain (three dates during hurricane season, the other four in November and December) cost $3,000 and up per person. This includes airfare from Miami on a U.S. Government-licensed charter flight, hotels, transfers, some meals, and educational activities. (You do save money if you book your tour before March 21.) Their second tour, Discover Havana, is a five day tour around the capital city, one of the highlighted spots being a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia. For the seven dates where space is still space available, prices start at roughly $2,000 per person.
I will admit, I briefly contemplated the incredible idea of actually being able to visit Cuba sometime this year, and not fifty years from now. But after more serious contemplation, the cost for the Colors of Cuba tour seemed a bit pricey for what is just travel to just a Caribbean island (with trips to the Dominican Republic costing a fraction in comparison). I also know that if I actually got to travel to Cuba I’d want to see more than just the capital, and the Discover Havana tour obviously doesn’t have that option.
While I’m still dying to visit Cuba, I’m not quite there yet in regards to booking a trip, although I think it’s wonderful that a more reasonably priced tour outfitter has been given a license, thus enabling non-millionaires a chance to travel and experience Cuba.