Cuba beckons – but is not yet a sanctioned destination

Travel Time with Kathy Pickerell

Travel Time with Kathy Pickerell

I’ve always been fascinated by Cuba. Cuban friends that grew up on the island, pre-Castro, described it as a little slice of heaven surrounded by sugar white sand beaches and Caribbean turquoise water, full of colonial architecture, rich culture, spicy cuisine, and lively music. As a fan of Hemingway, I knew there had to be a reason that he spent much of his last 20 years living outside Havana. And as a scuba diver, I imagined that it was paradise found. But part of the draw could be that it was off-limits to me as an American. I wanted what I couldn’t have, and that was to travel to Cuba.
In 1960 the United States imposed a trade embargo against Cuba. As a result, travel to Cuba by Americans has been restricted for over 50 years and has prevented us from even considering it as a travel destination. If you wanted to go, it had to be with a special license that took a gazillion pages of paperwork, or with a people-to-people tour (an organized tour that involved an educational or cultural experience), or through a foreign gateway such as Canada or Mexico. In other words, getting there was a royal pain!
In my naiveté, for years I thought that there was hardly any tourism in Cuba, but that isn’t the case. It’s been a popular destination for Canadians and Europeans, especially. There is a thriving tourist industry with everything from simple hostels to luxury resorts, but it remains to be seen whether the current infrastructure can support the increasing tourist demand.
Since I’m getting inquiries from people wanting to travel to Cuba, it feels prudent to point out that traveling to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. As of January 16, 2015, Americans no longer need to apply for specific licenses if they fit one of the 12 special categories that meet the approval of the U.S. government. Those categories are: educational activities for schools, including people-to-people exchanges; professional research and professional meetings; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions; religious activities; humanitarian projects; journalistic activities; family visits to close relatives; activities in Cuba by private foundations or research or other educational institutes; any type of support for the Cuban people; exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials; certain authorized export transactions; or official government business.

“Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert
There are still some grey areas, but purely touristic travel such as relaxation stays are prohibited. There goes any thought I had of just sitting on a beach at a luxury resort, or going to a club to hear salsa music.
Major airlines do depart from U.S. gateways daily. Americans will need a visa, but the cost varies depending on the airline. If you’re going in by cruise ship, the cruise line will take care of your visa for you. All travelers are required to fill out an affidavit. Also, Cuba requires that all tourists have travel medical insurance, and you may be required to give proof. Since credit and debit cards issued by U.S. banks still won’t work in Cuba, so travelers will need to bring plenty of cash.
Due to increased popularity and the ease in restrictions, I expect in the near future that there will be more flights, more tours and more tour companies offering travel to Cuba. It’s already being added as a port of call by many of the major cruise lines, including Norwegian and Carnival.
While it is getting easier to travel to Cuba, it’s still not one of those destinations where you can just hop a flight and go hang out. If it’s on your bucket list, it really is a great time to go before it becomes so commercialized that it looks like every other Caribbean beach destination.

Kathy Rainey Pickerell is the owner of World Travels, 225-279-0135, has been a travel consultant for 21 years, and is a native of Denham Springs. Besides being an avid traveler who has been to 6 continents, 46 states and 59 countries, she’s a mother and grandmother, a voracious reader, scuba diver, gardener, cook, and she keeps a bucket list for the places she has yet to see.

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