In 1962, President Kennedy imposed an economic embargo on Castro-led Cuba (largely due to that leader’s relationship with the U.S.S.R.) that greatly restricted American travel to the Caribbean island. Now, more than five decades later, most U.S. citizens are still strictly forbidden from traveling to Cuba ― with one notable exception: individuals who participate in person-to-person exchange programs.
Here’s how the programs work. Instead of catering to tourist activities and destinations, person-to-person exchanges are designed to be immersive, educational experiences for both the American visitor and his or her Cuban hosts. Travelers must adhere to a strict itinerary during their stay; each activity should “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities,” according to the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees the exchanges (and reinstated them in 2011 after a seven-year hiatus).
Today’s travelers have a few options when it comes to selecting an exchange program. Forbes contributor and former person-to-person exchange participant Larry Olmstead notes that the program offered by travel firm Abercrombie & Kent includes a meet-and-greet with local baseball players, an architectural walking tour of downtown Havana, and a visit to an authentic Cuban cigar factory. In addition to A&K, other travel agencies (such as Insight Cuba and Friendly Planet) offer person-to-person opportunities, as does The Smithsonian.
Traditionally, person-to-person exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba have involved air travel ― but for a brief period, the U.S. government entertained the idea of transporting American passport-holders to Cuba by boat. In July, a Boston-based company named Road Scholar began offering trips that shuttled Americans to and from Cuba on a 1,000-passenger cruise vessel. However, just weeks after the opportunity was announced, the Department of Treasury clamped down on the idea by amending Road Scholar’s person-to-person exchange license to restrict U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba “aboard a vessel”. Road Scholar cancelled the promotion soon afterward, though the company continues to offer a handful of air travel-based exchanges.
The biggest downside to U.S.-Cuba exchanges is the price tag. Most offers exceed $5,000, though they are typically all-inclusive of food and lodging costs. Besides, consider what this buys you: the chance to interact with Cuban people and experience a culture that has been more or less off-limits to American citizens for the last five decades.
Have you taken part in a U.S.-Cuba person-to-person exchange program? If so, how was your experience?