HAVANA (Reuters) - After several frenetic days of traveling, listening to lectures, walking through historic Havana and meeting Cubans, Terry McAbee did not hesitate when asked what the trip with her fellow West Virginia school teachers was missing.
“Beach time,” she said with a laugh. “They have these beautiful beaches and we can’t go.”
“We’re not supposed to be having fun,” another teacher, Steve Stanley, joked as they sat sipping drinks with 20 fellow travelers in a small Havana bar.
They are part of the growing flow of Americans to Cuba on so-called “people-to-people” trips, the only kind the United States government allows for most citizens under its 51 year-long trade embargo of the one-party state.
The trips are regulated to be more like work than fun - “meaningful” in the political parlance of the times - so no beach time on heavily scheduled sprints through Cuban society.
Despite that, people pay a lot of money to visit the Caribbean island that has been mostly off limits the past half century even though it is just 90 miles from Florida.
A four-day trip to Havana for two costs nearly $5,000, not including airfare, but the forbidden fruit aspect of Cuba is a big draw, said Edward Piegza, who led the first trip for his San Diego, California-based travel company Classic Journeys.
“It is a place and a people so close, yet off limits to us that it creates the natural desire of wanting what you can’t have,” Piegza said. It is, he said, a place many travelers want to see before they die.
Tourists from other parts of the world, mostly Canada and Europe, freely visit the island for its beaches, vintage American cars and Spanish colonial architecture.
In its short history, “people-to-people” travel has been a political football, a reflection of the tug-of-war between those who want to change U.S. policy toward Communist Party-ruled Cuba and those who do not.
It was authorized in 1999 under President Bill Clinton, then shut down by his successor President George W. Bush in 2003 and reinstated in 2011 by President Barack Obama.
While the United States tightly controls licenses for travel to Cuba, Havana approves the itineraries.
Cuba’s dissidents, considered by Havana to be mercenaries of the U.S. government, is predictably not part of the “people-to-people” contacts.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control or OFAC, the U.S. Treasury agency which enforces the embargo, said it has granted 250 licenses since Obama reopened the program.
One travel agency, Insight Cuba, will bring 150 groups to Cuba this year, its president Tom Popper said. Popper estimates as many as 75,000 travelers could go to the island in 2013.
The first trips of the Obama era began in August 2011 and since then Americans, once so rare as to be almost exotic, have become a common sight, particularly in Havana.
So far, the groups are made up mostly of white, middle-aged and retired people, but the most famous visitors were two young, black superstars - rapper Jay-Z and singer Beyonce.
The married couple attracted international media coverage in April as they strolled through Old Havana, met Cuban artists and enjoyed the music scene, often accompanied by adoring crowds.
The trip touched off a controversy among Cuban-American groups and politicians who oppose liberalization of U.S.-Cuba policy and questioned its legality.
As it turned out, the couple had a proper “people-to-people” license - and did not visit the beach.
Before Cuba’s 1959 revolution, it was a playground for American celebrities and socialites, among them singer Frank Sinatra, author Ernest Hemingway and actress Ava Gardner.
For the West Virginians in Cuba in 2013, their trip was organized by Washington-based Cuba Educational Travel. That meant conversations with artists, historians, teachers, priests, and small business owners, who described their work and lives in a country that is slowly modernizing its economy.
They sat on the floor of a cramped Central Havana apartment to talk with hip hop artist Magia Lopez Cabrera and watch her music videos on a laptop. They went to the Madrigal, one of the stylish new private bars opened under economic reforms by President Raul Castro, where they talked with university students and the bar owner, filmmaker Rafael Rosales.
“Now I have to worry about paying the bills, paying my employees,” Rosales said with a wan smile.
After a few questions, they rewarded him with a spontaneous rendition of the unofficial anthem of West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” by late singer John Denver.
The tours help to provide people with a different perspective than the propaganda aimed at them by their respective governments.
At the individual level Cubans working in bars and restaurants are enjoying the generous tips Americans are known for, while those who speak to the groups are getting “honorariums” as high as the equivalent of $250 - a bonanza in a country with an average monthly salary equal to $20.
Opponents of the travel program say the Havana government gives Americans a sugar-coated view of Cuba. Those on the trip said they recognized they were getting a filtered view, but had seen enough to draw their own conclusions - things were neither as good as the Cuban government wants them to think, nor as bad as the United States says it is.
“I’m glad to go home and allay all of those horrible rumors the Americans have heard for so long,” said Sonya Shockey, a high school world history teacher.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for both Cubans and Americans is that after half a century of official hostility, they like each other.
“We had this idea that Americans were unfriendly, aloof and always ordering everyone around, but I’ve found that isn’t true. They’re actually very nice, friendly people,” said Niuris Higueras, whose self-run restaurant is popular with tourists.
Editing by David Adams and Grant McCool