I have to admit when I first heard of the People to People initiative last month, I thought it was some new Verizon family plan and not an essential loophole that would open the doors for Americans to travel to the one destination in the world the law forbids them to go – Cuba.
But even as the industry continues to educate itself about what is exactly legal when making money off Cuba, several operators and agencies, such as Insight Cuba, Globus and Abercrombie and Kent, have been promoting tours, either approved under the People to People program or a special religious education permit, to Cuba.
And while some companies, such as Ya’lla Tours USA have been crying foul, the plans by these operators to send clients to Cuba haven’t been terminated yet.
Ronen Paldi, President of Ya’lla Tours USA says many of the operators promoting legal travel to Cuba still may not be following the correct protocol when sending Americans to the forbidden island.
In fact, although he claims the timing was pure coincidence, a release his company sent, warning agents about making money to Cuba was quickly followed by an announcement by Abercrombie and Kent that initial offerings to Cuba were being placed on hold.
“I think it was pure coincidence,” Paldi told us during a phone interview recently, “but I think a lot of these companies are perhaps realizing how sensitive this is. This is no joke. If the proper due diligence isn’t done, these companies can get in trouble and agents who book through them can get in trouble too. After all, if you break the law just because someone told you that it was right, it doesn’t mean you didn’t break the law. You will still be held accountable."
Nonetheless, one agency, Insight Cuba, has already begun sending clients there on Wednesday through the People the People program without any negative backlash or consequences.
Any unlicensed agent or tour operator, however, that promotes Cuba travel services, makes travel arrangements, or collects funds for travel to Cuba from Americans is in violation of Federal law and is subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.
A trip there needs to be set up through an operator who’s been approved through either the People to People ecucation program or an operator who's been approved to conduct religious education tours. 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.
With help from the Center for Caribbean Religion and Culture, Globus hopes to present travelers a rare opportunity to experience the enduring faith, colorful history and lively culture of this captivating nation with its new itinerary for 2012: Cuba: A Spiritual, Historical and Cultural Journey.
Insight Cuba got the tour operator ball rolling when it announced in late June that it was reauthorized by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to send Americans to Cuba.
Abercrombie & Kent hopes to be offering trips through the People to People program, which was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program this January.
Now, it's really difficult to formulate an opinion on whether this is fully legal, depending on who you speak to. In fact, some industry representatives say the mere promoting of travel there is against the law. When we spoke to the three operators offering Cuba itineraries, they were all pretty adamant that what they were offering was legal. And I find it hard to believe that these established companies would be counseled by someone who didn't know the laws. However, Abercrombie and Kent put temporary holds on those same offerings.
To be safe, Travel Agent suggests being very patient. Wait for the first few trips there to go down without a blip before you consider rushing into the Cuba market. The commission is the same as any other Caribbean island. It seems as though travel to Cuba could be a reality very soon. But, for now, tread lightly.