Avoya Top LB HBTA Oct 17

Weekend in Havana

Cruisewhiz Craig
or “How Would You Like
To Spend the Weekend in Havana!

craigSatterfieldBy Craig Satterfield, ECCS

While watching some of those old movies, traditional vacations to Cuba — lazing on the beach all day, for instance or stocking up on rum and cigars — have been forbidden by the U.S. government for more than 50 years, and still are. But since December the Obama administration has been easing most of the restrictions.

In the trades almost every day we are finding new tour operators that were given permission to operate tours and cruises in Cuba. Many are saying to see Cuba as soon as you can before it changes.

We as travel professionals still have to keep watch on what can and cannot be done in reference to our clients visiting Cuba as it has not become a “free for all,” at least not yet.

Here’s information on the types of trips permitted by U.S. law; the paperwork Americans need to travel to Cuba; recommended health precautions; getting there; currency; and what Americans can bring back. Remember that policies between Cuba and the United States are changing by the minute so I please ask your forgiveness in advance if some of this information becomes outdated in the two weeks between when it was written and published!

These kinds of trips permitted by U.S. law: Under revised regulations that took effect Jan. 16, there are a dozen categories of travel that allow Americans to visit Cuba which still need to be maintained.

The categories include family visits, professional research, religious activities, humanitarian efforts, performances, sports and journalism, but by far the most common category is educational or academic programs which include the very popular preplanned people-to-people contact. This the category most tour operators use when arranging trips for groups or individuals without family ties to the island.

A few years ago I remember a group that went to visit Cuba, a group of piano tuners, I guess figuring that all the pianos in Cuba were out of tune! Things have loosened up a lot since then.

The paperwork: Americans need a passport that doesn’t expire until at least six months after their Cuba trip is completed. (Cuban officials generally don’t stamp the passports of U.S. visitors.) The Cuban government requires U.S. tourists to apply for a visa (tourist card), a process that’s typically handled by U.S. tour operators on behalf of their clients. In theory, as an individual you could seek a visa through the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., but that route is a rarity so far. Here is more information on the Cuban Interests Section at lat.ms/1bGRIH2.

Health precautions: Cuba requires all travelers to have medical insurance and typically bundles that coverage with the cost of a charter flight (which is then bundled into the overall cost of an organized tour). Travelers who reach the Havana airport without health insurance can buy coverage before passing through immigration. Info: lat.ms/1EUwC5w

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites typhoid and hepatitis A as possible concerns in Cuba. Info: lat.ms/1JV5hxO

Getting there:
Interjet and Aeroméxico (both based in Mexico), Avianca (based in Colombia) and Cuba-based Cubana fly to Havana from Mexico City. JetBlue has recently started service from New York’s JFK to Havana five times a week. This is the first carrier to fly the route after President Obama’s decision in December to normalize relations with the island. Nonstop flights to Cuba on other U.S.-based carriers are expected to start in the next year or two as U.S. and Cuban aviation officials reach agreements. I understand American Airlines is flying charters from Los Angeles to Havana too. For now, charter carriers fly between the U.S. and Cuba. Organized tours to Cuba often cost about $2,000 and up; airfare may not be included.

Currency: Until U.S. rules change which will be any minute, take cash — euros or Canadian dollars. Change them into Cuban convertible currency (CUCs) at Cadeca currency exchanges. American dollars can be changed too, but you are penalized about 10%, again this is going to change shortly. Credit cards of any sort aren’t in widespread use, especially outside tourist areas. American credit cards can be used as of this month but it would be best to double check with your specific bank.

Accommodations: The easy-to-use website cubaccommodation.com covers all of Cuba, city by city. In Old Havana, rooms in private homes (casas particulares) are about $20 to $40 U.S. a night. Remember that hotels, especially historic ones, may be listed as luxury or five stars, but the terminology doesn’t always translate.

What Americans can bring back: Under the new provisions, Americans are allowed to bring back up to $400 in goods for personal use from Cuba, but no more than a $100 combined total in alcohol and/or tobacco products.

To learn more about Cuba: Go to the website for Cuba’s tourist board in Canada, gocuba.ca.

Can we cruise to Cuba?
Cruise line executives are extremely excited about the potential of Cuba. They say that the various ports of call on the Island are different enough to be exciting for cruise ship passengers, plus the ease of travel over bumpy dirt roads is avoided. Add cruise giant Carnival Corp. to the list of travel companies starting up trips to Cuba. The parent company of Carnival, Princess and eight other cruise brands says it’ll launch seven-night “people-to-people” tours to the island via ship beginning in May 2016, as US and Cuban authorities gave their blessing as of August 31, 2015!

The cruises will be operated bi-weekly out of Miami by the company’s new social impact-focused, fathom brand, which will debut in April 2016 with volunteer vacations to the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

Based in Miami, the Adonia, initially will sail every other week to the Dominican Republic, where passengers will have a choice of volunteer activities such as teaching English in schools, helping to cultivate cacao plants and building water filtration systems.

As described by Carnival Corp., the cruises will have similarities to the “volunteer vacations” operated by such non-profit groups as GlobeAware as well as the social impact-focused trips operated by church and school groups. To fill its one ship, the line will need to draw about 37,000 people a year.
Fares for the seven-night trips to the Dominican Republic will start at $1,540 per person, based on double occupancy and including taxes, port fees, all meals on the ship and three on-shore social impact activities. Additional shore excursions will be extra. The exact cruise dates to Cuba are still not released.

MSC Cruises has recently announced plans to become the first cruise line to homeport in Cuba. The cruise line’s 2,120-passenger ship MSC Opera will be based in Havana from December 2015 for the entire winter season, Itineraries will feature a host of popular Caribbean destinations, providing guests with the chance to explore destinations including Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico with two nights and two and a half days in the Cuban capital also available for those who’d like a taste of authentic Cuban culture. So far these cruises are only available to UK travelers but I am sure that in very little time the Opera will be available to US cruisers.

Cuba Cruise is a Canadian outfit which was started in 2003 has announced that they can carry American’s under the people to people program from Havana. Their ship is the chartered Louis Crystal and offers 7 night sailings will all ports in Cuba with the exception of Montego Bay. Rates for this cruise start at $650 cruise only but of course you need to get the air thru one of the charter airlines we discussed above.

In addition to Fathom and Cuba Cruise, a group of Florida ferry companies has been approved by the U.S. government to operate service to Cuba. Finally United Caribbean Lines, who has been patiently waiting for these days to come and run by veteran cruise executive Bruce Nierenberg will fulfill their dream. His company is working with Haimark Ltd. to put the 210-passenger Saint Laurent into operation as the first small ship operated by a U.S. cruise line to circumnavigate Cuba in over 40 years. The Saint Laurent will operate nine-night roundtrip departures from Miami to Cuba beginning Feb. 20, 2016 again pending final government approval.

Pearl Seas Cruises, which is a division of American Cruise Lines, has announced Cuban cruises as well with their 210 passenger Pearl Mist sailing seven to ten night sailings from Florida.

It is time for us to get on the ball, keep abreast of all the changes in the rules for travel to Cuba to be ready for those that have Cuba on their bucket list as well as those looking for something new close to home to tour and cruise to Cuba.