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New wave of travelers off to Cuba
It's now possible to tour Old Havana or deserted Cuban keys without risk
of running afoul of Uncle Sam.
By Marcelo Ballve / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Published: Wednesday, March 7, 2012, 4:00 AM

José Francisco González breathed a sigh of relief when President Obama
began easing rules on to Cuba.

González, who lives in Brooklyn, immigrated to the United States from
the island in 2000, but maintained strong family ties in the Havana area.

The rules made his life much easier. González's old pattern of travel to
Cuba for certain family events and holidays has become more of a
constant back-and-forth.

He also benefits from the quickly expanding offer of Cuba-bound direct
flights — including twice-weekly Havana flights from JFK in the high
season — and specialized travel services.

"It's much easier to go now, and everyone feels good about that," says
the 59-year-old González, who worked as a travel guide in Cuba.

The Obama rule changes mean that those with relatives on the island,
like González, can visit nuclear and extended family as often as they like.

But the changes, the most recent of which went into effect last year,
include a single, important shift that already has boosted the volume of
people going to Cuba this year: it's easier than ever for American
tourists to visit the island, too.

"We're jammed up. Since November, we've probably quadrupled the number
of people we're sending," says Bob Guild, vice-president of Marazul
Charters, with offices in Miami and North Bergen, N.J.

Marazul has been offering travel services to Cuba since 1979, and Guild
was among eight speakers on the panel "Outlook for Travel to Cuba" at
last weekend's Travel Show at the Javits Center, a gathering that
showcases travel destinations and services.

The message Cuba specialists keep sending out at events like this?

It is now possible to tour Old Havana, visit the karst hill formations
around Viñales, or explore coral reefs on deserted Cuban keys — all
without any risk of running afoul of Uncle Sam.

As of mid-2011, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets
Control (OFAC), which administers U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba, began
issuing licenses for select travel agencies and organizations to send
groups to the island for "educational exchange programs."

These are known as "People-to-People" Cuba visits, and American
travelers are allowed to join without prior U.S. government approval as
long as they go with these approved operators ? many of which specialize
in certain destinations like the Bay of Pigs or attractions like the
Havana Biennial art show May 11-June 11.

Other categories of travelers who can qualify for a blanket
authorization under OFAC regulations and fly to the island without
specific prior approval (but must carry proper documentation) include
students, journalists and those conducting professional or religious
activities.

Travelers who represent religious organizations only need to carry a
letter from the organization's leaders outlining their plans, says
Marazul's Guild.

That has helped facilitate the travel of delegations to Cuba this month
for the visit of Pope Benedict, March 26-28.

Batia Plotch, president of Global Gallop, a New York-based travel
company with a "People-to-People" license, specializes in visits that
offer a chance to get to know Cuba's 1,500-strong Jewish community.

"It's emerging, and it's growing, and it's nice to see that they're
allowed to worship," says Plotch.

Several other People-to-People licensees are based in New York. In
Washington D.C., the National Geographic Expeditions has 10 scheduled
trips through the end of May — and all are sold out.

Of course, as with all aspects of travel to Cuba, these visits are
strictly regulated.

Visitors can only spend up to $179 daily outside of the organized
itinerary, and are supposed to participate in all scheduled activities.

"People-to-People" trips are not cheap. Tours can cost $3,000 or more
for a week per-person, not including plane fare. Flights are
surprisingly costly, hovering around $440 for Miami departures, a
45-minute flight, and at least twice that for JFK flights.

In other words, Cuba travel might be easier than ever, but still isn't
hassle-free.

But that hasn't deterred a growing number of Americans making the trip.

"I'm sure it's not going to be as simple as taking a trip to Europe,"
says New York poet Emanuel Xavier, who is scheduled to attend a poetry
festival in Cuba in May, his first trip.

On a visit in December, González and his wife, Iraida Rodríguez, were
surprised by how many Americans they saw milling in Old Havana.

"I was shocked," says the Puerto Rico-born Rodríguez, who has lived in
New York since childhood.

"I had never seen anything like it," she adds. "We couldn't find a
room."

ballve@gmail.com

http://www.nydailynews.com/latino/wave-travelers-cuba-article-1.1034198

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