Last week, the Agenda began a series of articles on the opening up of Cuban borders to American travelers. Here, we continue our coverage with a step-by-step profile on the various ways that are currently available to gain access to this Caribbean island that once was an American territory and has been off-limits to U.S. travelers for five decades.
The first thing you need to be aware of is that the embargo for travel to Cuba has not been lifted, and until it is (no sooner than 2017 or beyond), the only way that an average traveler can apply for admission is through the People-to-People program. (Certain groups like doctors, research scientists and journalists are the exception to the boycott, and can come and go as they please after paperwork is completed.)
My first two visits to Cuba were accomplished as a journalist. My trip to the island country last week was done through the People-to-People program which has some strict regulations imposed primarily by the Cuban government.
The first step in getting your feet unto Cuban soil begins with your choice of carrier. I sailed aboard the Celestyal Crystal cruise ship which is part of CubaCruise company. The 1,000 passenger ship offers weekly cruises from Montego Bay, Jamaica lasting seven days.
At a price from $799 per person up to $1,500 a person, the Celestyal Crystal has been operating since last December. Al Ferguson, of Al & Chuck Travel in Sarasota, Florida, booked a block of cabins on three different cruises—the just completed one in January, plus additional cruises in February and April. These are gay group tours of about 150 or so. More information is available at alandchuck.travel.
To book with CubaCruises directly, go to yourcubacruise.com. The cruise company is responsible to obtain a Cuban travel visa on your behalf and you will be given the document aboard the ship. The cruises will stop for this season on April 11.
In the future, you will be able to book a cruise directly out of Port Miami on Carnival Cruise lines aboard the 700 passenger Adonia, sailing under its Fathom brand.
“Fathom is proud to be among the first cruise ship companies to be granted U.S. approval for round-trip travel between the U.S. and multiple destinations in Cuba, including Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, according to Tara Russell, president of Fathom division. “Our intention is to create the kind of true cultural immersion experience that will give you and your fellow travelers the rare chance to learn more about the lives and aspirations of the Cuban people.
“Fathom cruise itineraries to Cuba are authorized under current people-to-people guidelines as set forth by the U.S. government, which allow travel to Cuba for the purpose of engaging in activities that support the Cuban people,” she said. “As a Fathom traveler, you’ll have the opportunity to interact, one on one, with the artists, musicians, small-business owners, students, health workers and others who make up the fabric of Cuban society.”
Meanwhile, American Airlines has applied for several non-stop flights a day from Miami International to Havana. Howard Kass, the airline’s vice president of regulatory affairs, says that even though commercial service will be allowed, Americans are still barred from traveling to Cuba purely as tourists under U.S. law. All of which brings us back to the People-to-People program.
After selecting how you’ll get to Cuba, your next step is to apply on-line with the People-to-People program. The charge is $95 per person and requires answers to a one-sheet questionnaire. For more information, go to the website for the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FFRD) at www.ffrd.org.
Kass said he expects the U.S. government will allow airlines to apply for 20 daily flights to Havana and then 10 daily flights at each of the other Cuban international airports. He said passenger traffic will likely initially come from U.S. citizens wanting to travel to Cuba.
“But as ties normalize and economic relations grow, I’m sure there will be traffic in both directions,” Kass said.