Cuba ‘people to people’ trips back on track

By Laura Bly

From USA Today

After months of bureaucratic red tape and delays that forced several U.S. companies to cancel their popular “people to people” Cuba programs, the trips appear to be back on track.

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New York-basedInsight Cuba received its renewal license from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) late last week and is featuring more than 100 departures for the remainder of 2012 and 2013. It brought about 3,000 Americans to Cuba between August 2011 and June 2012, but had dropped 150 trips and laid off 22 staff members after its license lapsed.

Other travel companies getting recent governmental green lights to extend or launch Cuba cultural tours include Friendly Planet,Grand Circle Foundation, Geographic Expeditions and MotoDiscovery, which offers motorcycle tours led by Cuba expert and guidebook author Christopher P. Baker.

Authorized by President Obama last year as a way to boost Americans’ engagement with everyday Cubans despite a five-decade U.S. trade embargo to the communist island, the 140 licenses for “people-to-people” programs have been in high demand with many programs sold out or wait-listed through 2012.

The licenses exclude trips that are “primarily tourist oriented” and require mandatory participation in “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.” But in May, in response to reports of “abuses,” the Treasury Department tightened regulations. It now requires U.S. companies to provide a sample itinerary, assign a representative to each tour and explain how the exchanges would “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

The OFAC license application grew from six pages to “essentially hundreds of pages,” notes the Detroit Free Press, and “organizations seeking renewal had to document every minute of every day for every single trip they had done in the past year” to prove they were not engaging in regular tourism.

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