Thursday, May 7, 2015

How To Visit Cuba – Without Falling Foul Of US Travel Regulations

Despite the thaw with Havana, US tourists are still officially banned by their own government but if your trip is a ‘people-to-people’ exchange you could be in luck

When the first American ferries dock in Havana after more than half a century away, they won’t be bringing tourists – at least not technically. Until Congress lifts the US embargo on Cuba, Americans eager to explore the island must tour the island in the gray area of US rules.
Americans can only travel to Cuba if they are eligible for one of the 12 licenses now offered under the Treasury Department’s new rules, which include terms for family, business, religious or educational purposes.
In practice, the rules implemented since the United States’ rapprochement withCuba turn an application system into an honor system. An eligible American could simply check the right box and sign an affidavit to receive US permission, but should the traveler decide to bask on the beach rather than attend a lecture, he or she will have broken the law.

While some categories such as journalism or academic research have fairly specific definitions, others have more idiosyncratic standards that could allow tourism to grow in Cuba under other names.
Two such standards are “people-to-people” travel and travel for the “exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials”, both part of the US rationale that a cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans will promote democracy.
Tour companies have for years operated under a people-to-people pretext, trading visitor freedoms for access to the country on a strict itinerary. Americans cannot throw bachelor parties or spend an impromptu weekend in Havana, the rules say, but Americans can attend concerts and meander through a botanical garden – so long as the events are on the schedule.
The license for the export or import of information, on the other hand, means Americans legally can go to Cuba in pursuit of all manner of “information materials”. As defined by the US these materials run the gamut: books, films, records, CDs, photos, artwork and more.
The gray area around the new rules also presents a problem for travelers and businesses, however. Under the export-import information license, for instance, a traveler’s activities “must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule in Cuba”. Still in the early days of the new rules, companies and travellers are unsure how the government will decide what “recreation in excess” means, and how to enforce the rules.

Banks and businesses have chosen to wait and see how the countries enforce rules rather than diving into the market. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control could fine an American up to $65,000 for a violation. Last year the office fined Red Bull almost $90,000 for a documentary it filmed in Cuba in 2009.
Americans also face the obstacle of having to obtain a visa from Cuba, a necessity that can entail a long and difficult quest to win over the small and harried Cuban Interests Section in Washington DC. Private companies sometimes act as middlemen for the bureaucracies of the US and Cuba, obtaining visas for a fee; the removal of a layer of American regulation gives them greater leeway.
Charter travel companies such as Cuba Travel Services have already begun to fly 20 flights a week from New York and Miami to Havana; for a fee some of these services also manage Cuban visas and insurance for travelers. On the island itself, travelers would be free of regimented tour itineraries but would be on their own in making sure not to violate their license terms.
Whether by flight or ferry, passengers will have to submit to pre-screening, immigration and homeland security, said Joseph Hinson, vice-president of Baja Ferries, a company that received its license on Tuesday and tentatively plans to use Miami as its port of call.
“It would be up to us as the carrier to make sure that [passengers] fill out the documents and that they fall into the approved categories,” he said. “Obviously American tourists cannot travel there.”
Hinson said his company had passed “the big test” but that it would take several months to fulfill requirements of the US agencies – from the coast guard to public health department – and the Cuban authorities. He said that the company hoped for a September or October start date, and estimated tickets would cost $250 round-trip.
Last year’s historic agreement to normalise diplomatic relations with Cuba has already piqued interest in travel there, according to several travel agencies andorganizations, who report receiving hundreds more calls from curious customers. More than 500,000
Americans, mostly relatives of Cubans, visited Cuba in 2013, and an estimated 50,000 Americans visited the country by traveling through a third country. Travel purely for tourism will remain illegal until Congress lifts its ban on the island.

Contributed by Alan Yuhas,

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