U.S.-Cuba travel snarled by regulations, politics

Fri Sep 14, 2012 11:45am EDT
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By Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - The Obama administration's much touted "people-to-people" travel program to Cuba has all but ground to a halt due to tighter regulations issued in May, apparently to placate Cuban-American lawmakers, travel industry professionals said this week.

The program, which began last year and requires the annual renewal of permission to bring groups to Cuba, allows for educational and cultural travel under the administration's policy of constructive engagement.

The licenses of dozens of tour operators, who have carried an estimated 50,000 Americans to Cuba under the "people-to-people" banner so far, have not been renewed by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

This has caused confusion in both countries as the trips must be planned months in advance and hotel rooms, very much in demand in Havana, blocked out for the Americans.

The problems began after the new guidelines were issued, the companies said.

"We've laid off 22 people, canceled 150 trips, and after only one year of operations we are unable to recoup our start-up costs," said Tom Popper, president of New York-based Insight Cuba.

Popper, whose nonprofit business brought some 3,000 Americans to Cuba under the program, said he had applied twice to renew his license to no avail.

"We know of many licensees that are in the same predicament," he said.   Continued...

Tourists drink and buy cigars at a bar in Havana August 24, 2012. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan