BOSTON, MASS. (Issued June 2015) — There are bucket lists – and there are Bucket Lists.
Travel veteran Ellen Paderson, founder of Smiles and Miles Travel based in Easton, Mass., (www.smilesandmilestravel.com) recently returned from a week-long fact-finding trip to Cuba designed for travel agents. It was the only Caribbean island she hadn’t visited in her 20-year career.
Although Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, Florida, it has been off-limits for most Americans for 50 years. With President Obama’s announcement of limited normalization of relations, the U.S. government has expanded the categories of people who can travel to Cuba without a license. But visiting just for tourism is still forbidden.
A little background…
The U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba in 1960, two years after the country’s Communist revolution when the Castro government nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. Since then, there has been almost no commercial, economic or financial dealings except for shipments of U.S. food and medicine. Last December, President Obama said it was time to normalize relations.
Paderson says, “Our guide reminded us that ‘all of Cuba is an open-air museum of architecture, old cars, history–and now big change. We’re facing an onslaught of tourists and full normalization which, when it comes, will bring up to one million Americans a year.’”
“So now we can travel legally to Cuba — with limitations — but you must be part of a tour targeting ‘people to people’ contact,” says Paderson. New regulations will open up the island to more people – but you must fall into one of 12 approved categories such as family visits, entertainers, official business, humanitarian projects, journalists and research. Americans still can’t simply book a flight and a hotel and head to Cuba.”
“Eventually Cuba will be a new vacation and business destination for Americans,” says Paderson. “I wanted to be among the first travel agents to go so I could give the best first-hand recommendations as I’ve been doing for two decades for almost every other Caribbean island. I’m working with great companies that take groups to Cuba. You must travel with a recognized Cuba travel organization officially licensed by the U.S. State Department.
She adds, “The people are friendly and welcoming to Americans. Because of the American embargo, often you feel like you’re back in the 1960’s. Because it’s an authoritarian regime, you can’t break away from your group. Havana has some beautiful old buildings; some are crumbling, others are renovated beautifully into restaurants and shops. The Malecón (Avenida de Maceo) is a beauiiful esplanade which stretches for 5 miles along the coast, where people come out, bring food and socialize. The internet is spotty and most people don’t have smart phones or computers so their view of the outside world is limited. People talk to each other instead of fidgeting with gadgets like we do. There is very little crime because there is no drug problem. It’s ingenious how people keep old cars running because they have no parts. Car buffs from the U.S. are intrigued at the sight of so many vintage vehicles.”
A tour may include museums, historic sites, or even the Bay of Pigs, recreational activities — like visiting the beach or scuba diving — are prohibited. Activities must bring American and Cuban people together. Schedules are usually packed with these activities in order to comply with State Department’s mandates and federal law. Cuba is home to many U.N.-designated World Heritage Sites including Old Havana (dating to 1519); Trinidad, first seen by Spanish explorer Cortes; the fort at Santiago, and many others.
According to the Associated Press, from Jan. 1 to May 9 of this year, 51,458 Americans visited Cuba, compared to 37,459 over that period last year. There were 38,476 visitors who flew directly from the US to Cuba, compared to 29,213 in the same period last year.
Paderson says, “Anybody can go on an educational and other approved category trips, but they must go through approved companies which I can arrange through my contacts. I also have new contacts in Cuba.” For more information, contact Ellen Paderson: 508-238-4088 / Email: / Website: www.smilesandmilestravel.com.