How to GO to CUBA Now

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Source  NY TIMES  VICTORIA BURNETT

Travel to Cuba just got easier and, probably, less expensive. The United States government on Tuesday announced new rules that allow Americans to travel independently to Cuba on what they call “people-to-people” trips, one of the most popular ways to see the island. This means that Americans who want to go and spend their time meeting ordinary Cubans no longer have to book their trip through an organization. They can buy a ticket — for now, on a charter flight but soon from a commercial airline — book themselves somewhere to stay on Airbnb, and voilà.

Collin Laverty, the founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said that allowing Americans to travel on their own would make Cuba accessible to younger, less wealthy travelers who could not afford to spend, say, $4,000 on an organized weeklong trip

“It’s going to democratize and diversify travel,” Mr. Laverty said. Speaking by phone from Havana, he added, “And it will give Cubans a more diverse view of Americans.”

Here are frequently asked questions that people have as they plan their trips.

US EMBASSY INFO

Can any United States citizen visit Cuba now?

Americans still can go to Cuba only if the trip falls within one of 12 categories, including visits to close relatives, academic programs, professional research, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions. They can also go to organize a professional event or competition, to film and produce television programs and movies, to record music and to create art there. Even those traveling to Cuba independently on people-to-people trips are expected to have a full-time schedule of activities and retain documents that demonstrate how they spent their time. Ordinary tourism remains off-limits: Travelers may be asked by their travel organization to sign an affidavit that denotes the purpose of their trip, and they are required to keep travel receipts for five years after they return.

The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

What are people-to-people trips?

People-to-people trips are educational programs that are open to anybody, but require a full-time schedule of activities that produce “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.” Now that Americans can design their own people-to-people trips, it is less clear what what constitutes “full time” or “meaningful interaction.” Organized trips — which cost about $2,500 to $4,000 a week including accommodations and flights — usually entail back-to-back meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios or small businesses or community projects. Mr. Laverty said he believed individual trips would would lead to more “organic” interaction with Cubans.

“People-to-people will be getting in a taxi and talking in broken English to a guy and getting his thoughts — not those of an architect or an expert,” he said. “It will be way more informal.”

Independent travelers might take Spanish classes in the morning and salsa classes in the afternoon, he suggested, or even volunteer to teach Cubans English.

SCUBA DIVING RESOURCE advises contacting a Travel Professional to assist in setting up dive travel to Cuba and other destinations.

How do I get a visa?

Most visitors to Cuba, including Americans, need a tourist card to enter the country. If you are traveling with an organization or on a charter flight they will normally process the tourist card as part of the package. If you are traveling through a third country, you can normally buy it at the check-in counter.

Who will care what I do in Cuba?

Increasingly, it seems, nobody is keeping close tabs. Senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said the government continues to take restrictions on travel to Cuba seriously. If you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and, in fact, spend a week at the beach, you would be breaking the law.

If you do go to Cuba on your own under the auspices of a people-to-people license, it is not clear how you would provide documents to prove how you spent your time.

Mr. Laverty said he did not expect that to be a problem. “Nobody’s really watching,” he said. “I don’t think there’ll be any oversight at all.”

Can I fly to Cuba now?

Right now, only on a charter flight. The United States and Cuba announced in January that they had signed an agreement that would allow American commercial air carriers to offer 20 flights per day to Havana and 10 to each of the nine other Cuban cities with international airports. They have said they will decide by the summer which airlines could operate services from which cities. But they’ve already been laying the groundwork, allowing domestic carriers entry into previously blocked airspace, letting them enter into code-sharing and leasing agreements with Cuban airlines, and permitting crews to travel there and to help serve flights and vessels.

Of course, non-American commercial airlines fly to Cuba from many destinations. But commercial flights would eliminate the need to take expensive charter flights that currently operate from Miami, New York and elsewhere to Cuba. (A return flight from New York to Havana in April is offered by Cuba Travel Services at $899.)

Americans who meet Treasury Department requirements can fly through a third country, such as Mexico, Panama, Grand Cayman or Canada, an option that can be less expensive and more convenient than taking charter flights.

Can I use credit cards?

American travelers to Cuba may open a bank account there and pay for expenses with an American credit card. In reality, few people who take the short trip abroad have cause to open a bank account. A.T.M.s are few and far between in Cuba, and many establishments are unable to process credit card payments. So, cash will be king for some time to come.

Cuba charges a 10 percent “tax” on the United States dollar, so it is a good idea to take British pounds or euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar.

How do I call home?

Calls on the Etecsa network, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company, are expensive, and buying a temporary phone can involve long lines. But Verizon Wireless announced in September that it would allow its users to make voice calls, send text messages and use data services through the company’s pay-as-you-go International Travel option. At $2.99 a minute, you will not linger on the line. Etecsa now has dozens of Wi-Fi spots around Havana and other cities, meaning you can, in theory, make a VOIP call, as long as half of Cuba isn’t trying to do the same thing.

What can United States citizens bring back?

Americans can now bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars. John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, notes that, according to State Department records, Secretary of State John Kerry, who inaugurated the embassy in Havana in August, brought back an $80 humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of rum.

SCUBA DIVING RESOURCE advises contacting a Travel Professional to assist in setting up dive travel to Cuba and other destinations.

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May 29, 2016 |

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