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MIAMI — At first glance, the gaggle of American tourists gathered around a bar table at the Crowne Plaza near Miami’s airport are indistinguishable from holiday makers headed to Cancún or the Caymans for a break from punishingly cold U.S. weather. They exchange tales of previous trips to places like Australia and fantasize about dream getaways. But their destination is revealed when they begin talking about the vitamins and painkillers they were taking along for the locals.
Tourist travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens remains, theoretically at least, off limits under the embargo imposed by Washington half a century ago in the hopes of bringing down the regime of President Fidel Castro. But it is through one of many exceptions to the blockade — cultural trips — that the Friendly Planet educational group, among others, allows Americans to get ahead of the Joneses by visiting an increasingly desirable holiday destination.
But there’s already one set of Joneses aboard an American Airlines flight making the 40-minute hop to Cuba. Maynard Jones, along with his wife, Pam, and sister Marsha, are part of a “Soul of Havana” trip with a different group, In Touch with Cuba, which is just one of at least 140 U.S. organizations offering people-to-people tours since rules were relaxed by President Barack Obama in April 2011.
“We spent winters in Florida as children. Back then you could fly to Cuba for $10 or so,” said Marsha Jones, 70, of Harrisonburg, Va. “My parents always said we should go there, but we never did. Then it was too late … until now.”
U.S. citizens now make more than half a million trips to Cuba annually, a small share of the almost 3 million international visitors Cuba receives each year. And the numbers are growing. In 2013 more than 470,000 Cuban-Americans visited their ancestral home, in addition to almost 100,000 other U.S. citizens — many of whom pay $4,000 for a weeklong vacation. Despite the embargo, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issues specific licenses for travel to Cuba. But a further 50,000 Americans are estimated to visit “illegally,” each year, traveling via Mexico or Canada, countries that maintained relations with Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
U.S. citizens now make more than half a million trips to Cuba annually, a small share of the almost 3 million international visitors Cuba receives each year.
While the U.S. doesn’t consider people-to-people visits tourism, the Cuban government grants such travelers standard tourist visas. Washington’s extensive rules for these tours mandate an itinerary focusing on cultural activities and prohibit taking a whole day for mere leisure time spent sunbathing, for example.
Some conservative critics of the people-to-people concept see it as tourism that supports an authoritarian regime at best and as brainwashing at worst. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has referred to the program as a “charade" that “borders on indoctrination of Americans by Castro government officials.”
Some argue that U.S. authorities impose more restrictions than their Cuban counterparts do on these people-to-people interactions. Trip administrators must explain to the U.S. government how the exchanges “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”
David Harvell, who leads people-to-people trips for the New York–based Center for Cuban Studies, said, “There’s the fear factor for Americans, who think that the Cubans are tightly monitored, controlled and will get in trouble for sharing their true thoughts with foreigners. The irony is that it’s U.S. regulators who are the strictest.”
Harvell told Al Jazeera there’s a common misconception among people he’s taken to Cuba that officials want to “impose things on them just because they’re U.S. citizens.”
“For so many decades, Cuba was portrayed a certain way in the U.S.,” he said. Before going, Americans “view it as a black-and-white thing. Yet most people in Cuba … see positive things about the revolution and have plenty of criticisms. You talk to 10 people and get 10 different opinions.”
“Of course, you’re going to get a line that leans more pro-government,” Harvell said. “[But it’s] no different than a group of foreigners who come to New York. They’re not going [on a tour] of the South Bronx to show you everything bad about the city. It’s not realistic just to meet with Cuban dissidents … And no one is with you 24 hours a day.”
Certainly “Juan” does not fit the picture of a spokesman for the government. The In Touch with Cuba group met the young Cuban — who was just 3 years old in 1993 when his father jumped onto a raft for a seven-day journey to Florida — on their first night. Juan, who asked that his real name not be used, has not seen his father since. But Juan feels lucky that his father, now a doctor in Ohio, survived the grueling balsero trip, during which two of his four companions died. They now stay in touch via Facebook, email and Skype — though glacial Internet speeds in Cuba make that tough.
Like many Cubans, Juan hopes to move overseas. With new rules, he can leave Cuba without a problem. But the issue is getting a U.S. immigrant visa, either through refugee resettlement or being claimed by a relative. Counting an exiled Black Panther among his friends, Juan said Cuba must make the next move in improving relations with the U.S. He even suggested that Havana might benefit from a commonwealth arrangement similar to Puerto Rico’s — an unusual point of view for anyone deemed a mouthpiece for regime propaganda to Americans.
During the eight-day journey, the group met a variety of Cubans — from ex-lawyers who drive taxis, bartend or do informal legal consulting to get by, to Yanet Valdez, a singer and Afro-Cuban santería priestess. A lawyer’s daughter, Valdez can earn four times her mother’s monthly wage in one night.
For Elme Castillo, the owner of In Touch with Cuba, it’s the locals who thus benefit the most from the tours, culturally and materially. “Every minute spent with Americans is learning about the world and opens [Cubans’] minds, because generally they’re not exposed to those [perspectives].”
At Atelier, a paladar, or private restaurant, that doubles as a contemporary art gallery, Castillo’s travelers met entrepreneur Niuris Higueras Martínez. A retired PR professional in the group advised Higueras to make business cards and post to TripAdvisor. Unbeknownst to the visiting Americans, the well-branded Havana hot spot's 100-plus reviews had already attracted a New York Times reporter.
Experts say Cuba doesn’t have the capacity to rapidly expand the sector. “Cuba has much upside potential, but it needs many new hotels, a greater variety of facilities and much more for tourists to do,” said Paul Webster Hare, a Boston University professor and former U.K. ambassador to Cuba.
“The big prize would be if all Americans could travel [as actual tourists],” he told Al Jazeera. Yet there are “still only one-and-a-half golf courses in the whole of Cuba. The Dominican Republic has 35. And Cuba — a bigger country than the D.R. — still attracts only half the number of tourists.”
However, not every visitor to Cuba — nor every Cuban — wants the country to travel the same developmental road as its Caribbean neighbors when it comes to mass tourism. Even the visiting Joneses have their doubts.
“After we left, we went to Jamaica and the [Florida] Keys,” said Marsha Jones, after her family had returned stateside. “And I’d sure hate to see Cuba turn into one of those places, with Walmart and Starbucks. The tourism could just get overwhelming.”