When news broke on December 17 that the United States would soon be loosening travel restrictions to Cuba, one of my first reactions 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.
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 this past January.
Perhaps the main draw to the People to People trips since they launched a few years ago was merely the opportunity to get to Cuba legally before the rest of the U.S. does. Don't get me wrong, a lot of these itineraries are quite impressive and offer a lot more to get excited about than merely being allowed into the country.
But now that it appears as though everyone will soon be allowed to travel to Cuba, the People to People loophole is no longer needed. People will no longer be required to do anything on a vacation to Cuba other than drink rum and smoke fine cigars if that's what the clients want.
"From a Mayflower standpoint, the People to People initiative is still a remarkable, short-term thing that we will continue to enjoy offering while it's still going on," said John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours, one of several notable operators that possess a license to sell People to People travel to Cuba. "And when the floodgates open up, we will be ready to take over."
But as I thought more about the situation, it occurred to me that perhaps the People to People trips just got more popular than ever before. After all, people don't want to just go to Cuba, they want to go to Cuba before the rest of the U.S. gets there. When I was lucky enough to visit Cuba a few years ago, in fact, it was the surreal feeling of being in a place so forbidden that made the trip so magical.
Also, let's not forget some of the attractions that will eventually disappear with an influx of U.S. tourists. Namely, the country's classic American automobiles from the days when the U.S. was allowed to trade with Cuba will probably be replaced quickly with modern vehicles as most classic car owners will most likely sell their small fortune as soon as possible. As of right now, People to People clients not only get to see the cars, they get to ride in them. In fact, Mayflower Tours has a program where all People-to-People clients are picked up and driven to dinner in a classic American automobile.
In fact, the People to People trips now offer some concessions clients were not privy to before the Dec. 17 news. For example, Stachnik told us People to People clients are now allowed to bring back Cuban rum and cigars, something that was forbidden for all People to People trips prior to Dec. 17.
"Why now? Go before change. It's not quite the taking down of the Berlin Wall, but it's probably on a personal level, just as impactful to the local people. You can be part of history," said David Morris, owner of David Morris International (DMI), in a written release.
Renee Radabaugh, managing director for Cuba Explorations, the company that is working with DMI on its People to People trips, believes it will be a while before Cuba changes.
"But I believe you should go to experience the country in a pure state before commercialization takes over," she said in a written release.
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican (and is the first Pope from Latin America), U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.
Washington and Havana had had no diplomatic relations and the United States has maintained a trade embargo on Cuba since the 1950s. According to Reuters, a senior congressional aide said Obama would ease the embargo and travel restrictions that prevent most Americans from visiting the island.
As CNN pointed out, this restoration will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business with the Cuban people by extending general licenses. While the more liberal travel restrictions won't allow for tourism, they will permit greater American travel to the island. It is worth noting that the announcement comes just months ahead of the March 2015 Summit of the Americas, in which Cuba is set to participate for the first time.
Previously, Washington had vetoed Havana's participation on the grounds that it is not a democracy, but CNN noted that this year, several countries have said they would not participate if Cuba was once again barred.
As other news outlets have noted, the American embargo on Cuba seems set to remain in place for the time being. Still, the administration signaled that it "would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to."
Mayflower Tours announced their People to People Travel program to Cuba in July 2014.
The price is $4,199 per person. The nine-day program includes 20 meals with several of the meals at Cuban “paladars,” privately-owned and operated restaurants which add to the flavor of the visit; all meal gratuities; round trip transfers between Miami hotel and airport; non-stop charter flights from Miami to Cuba and return; baggage fee for the Miami to Cuba flight and airport transfers in Miami and Cuba.
In addition, clients are accompanied by an English-speaking Cuban guide, many People to People activities, including interaction and traveling in Cuba’s antique car fleet. All gifts and gratuities for these experiences are included. Travelers have the ability to purchase Travelers Protection coverage that is also valid in Cuba.
"We love offering the People to People trips and hope we can do so for as long as we can, but we also know that once Cuba opens to everyone, we will have a major advantage," says Stachnik. "Mainly, what everyone who has been selling these People to People trips to Cuba has that other operators don't is credibility. We now have credibility selling Cuba as does all the operators who obtained a license (to sell People to People travel). It is going to be an enormous advantage to have."