Expect More Operators to Sell Cuba in 2012

Last year, a handful of tour operators began exploring the People-to-People initiative, which essentially allows companies to legally send Americans to Cuba.

But after failed attempts by both Globus and Abercrombie & Kent to get legitimate licenses, it appeared as though the window of opportunity to begin selling travel to Cuba closed.

On Thursday, Collette Vacations may have just busted the window right back open.

The operator announced that it was granted a license via the U.S. Department of the Treasury through the People-to-People initiative, giving other major operators hope for the same privilege.

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 this January.

Earlier last year, three operators attempted to secure licenses, but after updated Department of State travel advisories to Cuba as well as accusations from several other tour operators that these trips were still technically illegal, two of the operators –Abercrombie and Kent and Globus -- decided to place temporary holds on their offerings while they looked into the issue more closely. And other operators that were also rumored to get in on the act were apparently scared off.

The third -- and perhaps the least known of the three -- Insight Cuba, however, went full steam ahead and officially inaugurated their People-to-People trips to Cuba in August when they sent roughly 40 people, divided in three groups, to Havana and other areas of this controversial Caribbean destination.

The trip, to comply with the People to People initiative, was tailored around community activities to bring Americans in close contact with the people and culture of Cuba from visiting local farmers to a school for the Blind and the Visually Impaired.

Collette Vacations’ offerings also meet the same standards. Those tours include a chance to learn about the Botanical Gardens of Cienfuegos and their ties to Harvard University; visiting the Cuban Fine Arts Museum; meeting the students of a primary school in Havana; a harbor cruise with local fishermen who share their way of life; a stop at the home of Ernest Hemingway to explore his love of Cuba and its people; and even a hands-on pottery class at a ceramic studio during which the owners discuss passing down the traditions from generation to generation.

If other operators follow the same steps as Collette Vacations and Insight Cuba (mainly correctly following the People to People protocol), we could see a ton of operators begin selling the forbidden island well before the destination opens up to all Americans.


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