|Travel Agent's Joe Pike leans on a classic American car during a 2009 trip to Havana, Cuba|
If you're one of those tour operators who decided not to go through the somewhat long and tedious process of applying for a General License to send People-to-People tours to Cuba because you thought travel to Cuba would be fully legalized soon - think again.
For those who aren't terribly familiar with the program, the People-to-People initiative requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country. It was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program. Although specific People-to-People licenses are no longer being issued, all travelers are still required to have a General License but still on a People-to-People itinerary.
When news broke on December 17 that the United States would soon be loosening travel restrictions to Cuba, Travel Agent's first reaction was to feel sympathy for all those tour operators who worked, in some cases for years, to obtain a license to sell People to People travel to Cuba. But after the House of Representatives voted last week against relaxing long-standing restrictions on U.S. citizens' travel to Cuba, it's apparent those operators offerings People-to-People tours to Cuba could benefit greatly.
On the same day as the House of Representatives vote, Richard Sealy, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), told media and tourism officials gathered at the Wyndham New Yorker hotel for the closing press conference of Caribbean Week New York to curb their excitement about restriction-free U.S. travel to Cuba.
Although Sealy says he was "looking forward to seeing Cuba fully integrated into this whole system of offering tourism services," he did want to remind those in attendance not to start planning their trips to Cuba anytime soon since there were still some major obstacles to overcome in fully lifting travel restrictions from the U.S.
"I think a little dose of reality needs to be realized here," says Sealy. "(President) Barack Obama did all he could do as far as restoring relations, but there is still this thing called Congress."
In the wake of the House of Representatives vote against relaxing long-standing restrictions on U.S. citizens' travel to Cuba, Latour has announced it will increase the number of its 2015 and 2016 licensed people-to-people tour programs to Cuba.
Latour currently has a schedule of 38 departures of its nine-day/eight-night tour programs to Cuba, from now through the summer of 2016. Latour's Cuba programs are available with three differing itineraries, with offerings tailored to general-interest travelers ("Hello Cuba!"); Jewish travelers ("Shalom, Cuba"); and PrideWorld's "Cuban Pride" for LGBT travelers.
Travel Agent expects more operators that already have General Licenses to send People-to-People tours to Cuba, like Latour, to expand their programs, while other operators that thought the application process was a waste of time could be having second thoughts.
What do you think the future holds for Cuba travel? Let us know on our Facebook page and in the comments below.