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Cuba limbo: Island-bound U.S. groups face licensing questions

September 06, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds | Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • Flower vendor Raul Soto works the street in one of Havana's oldest neighborhoods. Educational tours to Cuba may focus on the island nation's arts, its history of its economy.
Flower vendor Raul Soto works the street in one of Havana's oldest… (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los…)

Less than two years after President Obama set off a boom in Cuban travel by relaxing restrictions on “people-to-people” educational trips, Obama’s Treasury Department has again tightened restrictions, forcing cancellations and delays that have put dozens of educational group trips in limbo.

Though Treasury officials have said little about reasons for the move, it follows complaints by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) about “rampant abuses” in the program, which is intended to foster “meaningful interaction between travelers and inviduals in Cuba.”

The slowdown apparently began May 10, when the U.S.  Treasury Department stiffened the requirements for the renewable one-year licenses that allow educational tour operators into Cuba. Jeff Braunger, program manager for the Treasury Department’s Cuba Travel Licensing, said in an e-mail that the application process was tightened “because of reports we received” about licensed trips failing to meet government standards.

Tour operators say a handful of organizations have been granted renewal of their licenses, including Elderhostel’s Road Scholar program, Grand Circle Foundation and the UCLA Alumni Assn. That leaves dozens of others in doubt as the peak Cuban travel season approaches.

At least one major educational tour operator --Insight Cuba, which was criticized specifically by Rubio -- says its license has lapsed, forcing 22 layoffs. Smithsonian Journeys is going through with a Nov. 9 Cuba trip, but has canceled a Nov. 30 departure because its license (not yet renewed) will expire while the trip is in progress. Many other groups, including National Geographic Expeditions and Stanford’s alumni group, face the prospect of canceling trips if renewals are not granted soon.

 “It’s odd,” said Janet Moore, owner of Long Beach-based Distant Horizons, a travel service provider that has operated people-to-people programs in Cuba for UCLA alumni, Harvard alumni, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and about 15 other U.S. academic and arts groups in the last year.

She acknowledged that different groups might offer trips with different merits. But the programs she works with have comparably high standards, Moore said, and so far only the UCLA alumni group has had its license renewed.

For the moment, Moore said, it appears the license-renewal process “has just stopped.” If no more renewals are granted before the Cuban travel season begins in November, Moore said, dozens of groups will have to scrub their Cuban plans, and the number of Americans on Cuban people-to-people trips could fall from more than 10,000 in the last year to perhaps 3,000 next year.

Meanwhile at the Treasury Department, spokesman John Sullivan said Wednesday that “the program remains robust.” In an email the same day, Treasury Department Cuba Travel Licensing program manager Jeff Braunger said the department had issued about 140 licenses to people-to-people tour operators since early 2011 and that “we are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requesting to renew existing licenses… It is our goal to respond in a timely manner.”

Sullivan and Braunger did not address more detailed questions about reasons for the crackdown, the number of applications in the pipeline and the target timetable for processing them.

At Stanford University’s alumni travel organization, three Cuba trips are planned for 2013. But until officials renew Stanford Travel/Study’s license, the group’s website on Wednesday listed the Cuba trip as “in development” with details “not yet finalized.”

At National Geographic Expeditions, which has 12 Cuba trips planned between November and June 2013, the website on Wednesday labeled those trips “wait list only.” A note added that these trips “will operate subject to renewal of our People to People license by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.”

At Insight Cuba, the New Rochelle, N.Y.-based group that carried about 3,000 travelers to Cuba between August 2011, and June 2012, president Tom Popper said he had been trying in vain to renew his license since March 19.

The group filed to renew its license on that date, Popper said, then was told to refile the application under the new May 10 guidelines, and did so on June 26.

“What used to be 10-page application for us turned into a 174-page application,” Popper said.

On June 30, the group’s existing license expired. Since then, Popper said, Treasury staffers have asked for more information but haven’t said when or whether the license might be renewed. Unable to take deposits or arrange tours, Insight Cuba in August laid off 22 employees, Popper said.

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