By Scott Schwar (Article requested by Linked-In Editor: published 22 JAN 2015)
INFO: CUBA Travel Changes Bring Hope …and Confusion
Excitement projected vividly across the emails I received from Cuba the day President Obama announced new Cuba policy changes on 17 DEC 2014. Genuine joy was expressed and further confirmed when these NEW Cuban Assets Control Regulations implementing Cuba policy changes were published in the Federal Register on 16 JAN 2015. The President brought us much closer to Cuba but only Congress (per the Helms Burton Act) can end the embargo and restore full Cuba travel for tourism. The general public feeling is that everything is now open. The reality is that restrictions remain.
The final answer will be in the regulation of the rules, but an upfront vision of easy travel is misleading. For example, a Chicago Tribune article (16 JAN 2015), “U.S. Eases Cuban Trade, Travel Rules” stated that the change will open the floodgates for tourists to book their own direct flights to Havana. It then went on to surmise, “U.S. visitors can state that their goal is educational, for example, and board a flight if they indicate they intend to talk to Cubans and learn about life on the Communist-run island 90 miles off Florida.” This statement can be misleading.
The new regulation changes are written to further engage and empower the Cuban people, compared with traditional beach oriented tourist travel which is still taboo under the new regulations. General licenses, under the new rules, now regulate travel. For my company, The Committee on Illinois (dba Cuba Tours 4U), it meant that I didn’t need to finish the Specific License Renewal Application that I was working to complete. For travelers, it means that they can read the regulations and “VET” themselves for legal travel.
General licenses include travel for families, journalistic activity, professional research/meetings, import/export trade, human rights activities, public performances/clinics, athletic competitions and exhibitions. But, these General Licenses still restrict individual travel to professional practitioners that have a full-time activity schedule that does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.
Group travel has the same free time restrictions and is often related to school education programs, religious groups, humanitarian projects or the popular “people to people” educational travel. The NEW conditions for “people to people travel” include engaging in educational exchanges under the auspices of a U.S. organization that sponsors people to people exchange (companies like The Committee on Illinois) and that the travelers are accompanied by a paid representative of that organization to ensure a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities. As you can see, this is not the free pass to travel as some envision.
But that’s not so bad. Most travelers on the people to people educational travel programs are excited by the structured opportunities to experience the Cuban culture in depth and access and really meet a variety of Cuban professionals. Our trips for example, seek opportunities for meaningful interaction when meeting Cubans in their daily life and work. We take it to another level in our Farewell Dinner which we share with a cross section of Cubans appropriate to the group’s interests in order to really sit down and talk with them about their individual and societal experiences and hopes.
Even if a traveler finds that he or she can travel within the regulations, the promises in the travel infrastructure are still a ways off. Commercial airlines will now be able to fly to Cuba but arranging flight schedules within the U.S. and Cuba will take time. U.S. credit cards can now be used in Cuba for the first time. But a U.S. banking system which froze domestic dollar transfers in December 2014, at the mere mention of the word “Cuba” is still a ways away from the internet banking ease envisioned. Hotel space is already crowded with Europeans and travelers from other countries and the addition of mass U.S. tourism will produce more shortages and price gouging until the supply of rooms meets the new demand. These issues will eventually work themselves out but given the details and the potential political push-back from Congress on the new travel regulations, it may take months or some years.
Cuba is and always will be a special country to visit. It boasts some of the oldest and largest fortresses in the Americas (4 along the Havana harbor entrance) and the largest Colonial Center in Latin America with its 4 main plazas fully restored with further restoration progressing. The Cuban people feel a kinship to North Americans and are increasingly comfortable in open discussion of issues. Once there is open tourism, this ecologically preserved, mountainous bird sanctuary of an island surrounded by pristine coral reefs will be a favored country for adventure tourism, and Cuba Tours 4U will feature this venue.
But the lure of this open tourism could make Cuba just another Caribbean spot for beaches and quick tours of the local historical sites. Visiting Cuba now, however, within the regulations which demand thoughtful tourism, can foster an unforgettable cultural encounter and site visit as so many travelers over the past few years have discovered. This sort of people to people interactive travel is somewhat demanding but so rich in reward. So until the new regulations and tourism infrastructure changes are fully realized, don’t miss visiting Cuba in this transition period even if it is not without restrictions. For once the typical Caribbean travel tours arrive in Cuba for U.S. citizens, we may end up reminiscing about these special educational programs and longing for the personal interaction with another country and culture that you can’t get in any other travel program.
IS IT LEGAL TO TRAVEL TO CUBA - 2015?
Cuba has been off-limits for U.S. travelers for decades and that shroud over travel to Cuba has often created a strong interest in the island as well as a pervading fear of what to expect. President Obama’s Cuba Policy Change announcement on 17 DEC 2014 has renewed hopes for easier travel. The key may be in how the new rules will be regulated but currently travelers must still travel within one of 12 authorized travel purposes (e.g. family travel, journalistic, researcher, etc.) and can now simply sign an affidavit they qualify instead of applying for a specific license. The traveler, however, must keep a record of the trip for five years showing a full schedule of category related activities.
Conventional tourist travel or beach resort travel remains prohibited. People to People Educational Travel is still the way most travelers can qualify for travel to Cuba. Such a traveler also signs a general license affidavit agreeing to engage in a full schedule of educational activities, travel with a U.S. organization that sponsors such exchanges to promote people to people contact and have an employee of that organization accompanying the group to ensure a full schedule of educational exchange activities.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO CUBA?
As for the dealings with the Cuban people, be comforted to know that despite past problems between the U.S. and Cuban government, the people of Cuba feel a genuine affinity and affection for U.S. citizens due to our geographic closeness, our shared history, culture (e.g. baseball) and even the shared weather patterns. More so, many Cubans have relatives residing in the U.S. and these U.S. families can now travel more frequently back and forth.
Cuba has the lowest crime rate in the Western Hemisphere. In country you may notice a visible police presence which is specifically there to protect and help tourists. However as with any major city, be aware of your belongings and environment.
A company representative will normally be with you on your trip and we will usually have the services of a bilingual Cuban guide assigned to your group. Our Travel Service Provider or Charter Air Company can also forward any emergency message to you in Cuba while you’re there and we can handle any problems that might occur during your stay. Most hotels have direct phone lines to the U.S.
HOW DO I FLY TO CUBA FROM THE UNITED STATES?
Although there are many flights into Cuba from several originating cities, not all carriers are sanctioned to be used by U.S. OFAC license holders (so just because you can see a flight from Toronto to Havana doesn’t mean you can legally get on it). Our Travel Service Provider/Air Charter Company, Marazul, has regular daily flights to Cuba from Miami and other locations. They can also work on our behalf with other air charter firms and their varied departure times and locations.
WHAT TYPE OF DOCUMENTS WILL I NEED TO ENTER CUBA?
US citizens will need a Cuban Visa (issued with your air ticket), Passport, and U.S. Treasury Department General License Affidavit on File. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must also carry all necessary documentation to enter the U.S. (e.g. green card).
You must have a valid Passport (the expiration date must extend at least 6 months past the return date of your scheduled trip).
WHAT ABOUT INSURANCE… DO I NEED IT?
We strongly recommend Travel Insurance which can include: Trip Cancellation Trip Cost, Trip Interruption, Missed Connection (3 Hours or More), Travel Delay (6 Hours or More), Baggage and Personal Effects, Baggage Delay, and Accidental Death and Dismemberment. We offer this insurance through a partner agency.
Your trip price includes Cuban Health/Travel Insurance, which is required for any medical expenses while in Cuba. This covers 100% of medical expenses in Cuba up to $25,000 and re-patriation or transportation due to illness, accident or death (up to $7,000). Limitations may apply for pre-existing conditions.
Please Note: The Committee on Illinois does not carry insurance.
HOW SHOULD I PACK FOR MY VISIT TO CUBA?
Be prepared for hot weather, with a chance of brief periods of rain. In the winter month, it may cool off in the evenings so bring a light sweater or jacket. As a rule clothing is generally on the informal side.
The following list contains non-clothing items you may consider bringing:
• Sunscreen/Sunglasses/Sun Hat
• Extra pair of eye glasses
• Mosquito Repellent
• Spanish/English dictionary
• Alarm Clock
• Light rain jacket
• Tissues/Tampons (toilet tissues are sometimes in short supply in public bathrooms)
• Anti-bacterial Gel or Small Soap
• Normal Medications and basic first aid kit items including aspirin and antacids
• Small flashlight
• Camera film/Extra batteries
• Plastic bag for soiled clothes
You can bring gift parcels to Cuba for individuals (except high ranking government or Communist party officials), charitable, religious or educational institutions including informational materials, medical supplies and equipment, clothing, personal hygiene items and consumer goods. You cannot bring in food items. We can coordinate delivery of gift parcels on site.
Furthermore, if you are bringing prescription drugs into Cuba, be sure the pharmaceutical label is on the container and you carry a prescription for emergency refill purposes only (should your container become lost or the contents compromised during your stay).
IN WHAT TIME ZONE IS CUBA LOCATED?
Cuba is in the Eastern Time Zone. Cuba also follows daylight savings time.
IS IT SAFE TO DRINK THE WATER?
It is recommended to drink only bottled water. The most common afflictions to visitors are mild diarrhea and sun-related illnesses. Therefore, it is advisable to keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water, and/or non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic drinks… and don’t forget to use sunscreen!
HOW DO WE GET AROUND?
All group transfers between the airports, hotels, and meeting locations are in air conditioned buses or vans. Some travelers may also have a domestic flight or two, depending on your itinerary. Because you have a full-time schedule you will not require additional local transportation while you’re there, but taxis and pedi-cabs are easily found should a need arise for an alternative form of transportation.
Taxis: Metered tourist taxis are readily available at all of the upscale hotels, with the air-conditioned new European or Asian foreign taxis charging higher tariffs than the non-air-conditioned Soviet built Ladas. The cheapest official taxis are operated by Panataxi (55-5555) and cost 1 CUC flag fall, then 0.50 CUC a kilometer. Tourist taxis are metered and charge 1 CUC a kilometer. Almost all hotel receptions will be able to call or book you a taxi relatively quickly.
The cheapest taxis are the older yellow-and-black Ladas, which are state-owned but rented out to private operators. They won’t wish to use their meters, as these are set at an unrealistically low rate, but you can bargain over the fare. They’re not supposed to pick up passengers within 100m of a tourist hotel.
Other taxi forms: Yellow, egg shaped Coco-taxis for two people are fun and functional for narrow streets, but can be dangerous. They charge about the same as tourist taxis. Another more romantic travel option is the horse drawn carriage. These usually go along fixed routes in popular, city tourist areas.
Two-seater bicycle taxis (Bici or Ciclo-taxis) will take you anywhere around Centro Habana for an agreed upon price. It’s a lot more than a Cuban would pay, but cheaper and more fun than a tourist taxi. Some Bici-taxis are licensed to carry only Cubans, and drivers may wish to go via a roundabout route through the backstreets to avoid police controls (if the drivers get caught breaking the rules, it’s their problem not yours).
Colectivos: Colectivos or gypsy cabs are old pre-revolution American cars that act as collective taxis for Cubans. They’re not supposed to take foreigners but, if you’re stuck somewhere out of the way, you can bargain for a ride.
In Cuba, we will need to change our currency into the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). Although the CUC functions on a near one to one parity with the U.S. dollar, we are penalized with a 10% surcharge on all U.S. dollar currency exchange operations into CUCs in addition to the exchange commission levied on all currencies. For this reason, many travelers bring in EUROS, Canadian dollars or British pounds to exchange into CUCs.
There is a dual currency system in Cuba with nationals receiving wages in Cuban Pesos called CUPs (roughly 25 CUPs to 1 CUC). Be sure that change received in transactions is in CUCs.
Recent experience showed 87 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs) for $100 U.S. dollars exchanged. Meals outside of the group meals cost in the range of 20-40 CUCs. There are more expensive restaurants and dinner wine (Spanish) is more available at 10-30 CUCs per bottle. National drinks of Cuban beer and cocktails with rum are generally 3-5 CUCs (a bit higher at the Floridita and top hotels). Bottles of water are 1-2 CUCs.
A nightclub like the Tropicana will run 100 or more CUCs for a good table, appetizers, bottle of rum for four and a flower or cigar per person.
CADECAs (money exchanges) are located at the airport (there is a kiosk just before departing the baggage area) and throughout the city. Hotels will also exchange money for you, though normally in limited transaction amounts.
AIRLINE BAGGAGE CHARGES
Different charter airlines charge differently but typically $20 per checked bag. Boxes or irregular bags are $4 per pound plus the $20 fee per checked bag. Carry-on bags cannot weigh over 20 pounds. OVERWEIGHT Charges: $2 per pound over 44 pounds including carry-on bags.
WILL I BE ABLE TO ACCESS THE INTERNET IN CUBA?
You will be able to purchase internet access at most tourist hotels, either through their Business Center or with a login. Rates vary per property and may also be variable between hourly and daily rates. Please confirm your rate before starting your access, and seek immediate assistance if your connection is bad. This charge is “on own” and not covered by your trip price. Each hotel is different so access may be via a data port or the hotel may offer wireless internet access.
WHAT ABOUT TIPPING IN CUBA?
If you’re not in the habit of tipping, you’ll learn fast in Cuba. Parking guards, ladies at bathroom entrances, restaurant wait staff, tour guides – they’re all working for hard-currency tips. Musicians who gather round tourists while they dine want a convertible peso, but only give what you feel the music is worth (the music is almost always good). Washroom attendants expect five or 10 cents (centavos). Taxi drivers will appreciate 10% of the meter fare, but if you’ve negotiated a ride without the meter, don’t tip as the whole fare is going straight into their wallets.
At meals, leave $1-2 CUC for the wait staff (normally group meal tips will be handled by the trip leader). Room housekeepers/maids should be given $1 CUC per day. Your Cuban guide should receive $5-$10 CUC per person per day depending on your satisfaction. Tip our bus driver $3-$5 CUC per day.
ARE THERE TAXES I SHOULD PLAN FOR?
There are no direct or specific taxes on goods or services in Cuba. However, some tourist restaurants have savvied up and begun adding a 10% “service charge” onto their bills. This charge goes directly to the restaurant – not the waiter, so plan to leave a cash tip for your server.
ANY NOTES ON ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS?
Cubans are friendly, open, and physically expressive people. They strike up conversations easily and seldom use the formal terms of address in Spanish. However, be aware that as a foreigner, many Cubans who start a conversation with you are hoping in some way to get some economic gain out of the relationship. Jineterismo, or jockeying, is a way of life in Cuba. This may involve anything from offers to take you to a specific restaurant or hotel (for a commission) to direct appeals for money or goods.
Dress is generally very informal, in large part due to the tough economic times faced by the broad population. Suits are sometimes worn in business and governmental meetings, although a simple short-sleeved cotton shirt with a tie or a guayabera, are more common. The guayabera is a loose-fitting shirt with two or four outer pockets on the front and usually a few vertical bands of pleats or embroidery. The guayabera is worn untucked, and is quite acceptable at even the most formal of occasions.
WHAT DO I DO IF, ON THE VERY REMOTE POSSIBILITY, I HAVE AN EMERGENCY WHILE I’M ALONE?
Your Committee on Illinois (Cuba Tours 4 U) guide or the Cuban guide traveling with your group is your first contact. They can operate on your behalf. If unavailable, contact the hotel front desk.
For legal emergencies, contact your diplomatic representation. All U.S. citizens can find assistance at the U.S. Embassy with no questions asked about licenses.
U.S. Embassy Office is a short distance along the coast from the Hotel Nacional at Calzada e/ L y M, Vedado, Havana. Telephone: Main Switchboard (=53) (7) 839-410
WHAT IS THE ELECTRICAL VOLTAGE IN CUBA?
Most of the hotels in Cuba use the 110 volt current with standard U.S. style outlets. If you are staying in a hotel it is estimated that 90% use 110 volt current, however if you are traveling to remote areas or in some of the newer hotels where they 220-volt AC current, you may need to bring a voltage converter and an electric adapter.
WILL I BE ABLE TO USE MY CELLPHONE OR PDA IN CUBA?
You will not be able to use your U.S. cell phone in Cuba. There are phone rental services available but arrangements are usually made once in country.
As for your PDA device, if you purchase wireless access at your hotel, some devices can be used to connect to the internet but you will not be able to make calls on the PDA.
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY VALUABLES?
The properties that we use offer safes either in the room or at the front desk. There may be a daily rate charged to use the safe. This charge is “on own” and not covered by your trip price.
HEY, I LIKE THAT… CAN I BRING IT HOME???
Informational materials such as books, films, original artwork, posters, photographs, tapes and CDs have always been allowed. Per the December, 2014 changes, you may now bring back home up to $400 in Cuban merchandise. Of that amount, $100 can be in cigars and rum.
IS THERE AN AIRPORT DEPARTURE TAX?
The Cuba Departure Tax is 25 CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) which is roughly $30 and until recently was collected at the airport on departure. It is now included in your airfare. The Miami Departure tax (for flying into Cuba) is included in your air fare as well.