American travel to Cuba, which has surged and dwindled through decades of political ups and downs, may soon be surging again.
The key, veteran tour operators say, is the end of an apparent logjam in the handling of travel licenses by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That office is responsible for issuing and renewing the licenses that educational tour operators must have before they can sell Cuba tours to Americans.
The Treasury Department explicitly excludes trips that are “primarily tourist-oriented.” Tour operators that fail to meet guidelines face civil penalties of up to $65,000 per violation.
Less than two years ago, President Obama set off a mini-boom in Cuban travel by relaxing restrictions on “people-to-people” educational trips aimed at promoting “meaningful interaction between travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
After an initial burst of trips — and complaints from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.) alleging “rampant abuses” and frivolous itineraries — Obama’s Treasury Department tightened restrictions in May, forcing cancellations and delays that put dozens of educational group trips in doubt.
In late September, however, the tide appeared to turn, tour operators say.
One of the more dramatic cases was that of Insight Cuba, a major educational tour operator, based in New Rochelle, N.Y. Rubio accused the tour operator of running trips that were too laden with music and dancing to qualify as proper educational exchanges. When the company’s Cuba license expired in late June and OFAC officials didn’t approve a renewal application, Insight Cuba president Tom Popper said he laid off 22 staffers and the business was in peril.
But on Sept. 28, Popper said, OFAC renewed the license. By Tuesday, the company was taking reservations again, and Popper was forecasting 100 departures in the coming year, taking as many as 3,000 travelers to the island nation.
That’s a decrease of 50 departures from the booming business Insight Cuba did last year, Popper said, but still a relief…
Read more: LA Times