ALERT FOR US TRAVEL AGENTS: Floodgates to Cuba are already open

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It was about three years ago that experts in the travel industry were predicting about three to five million Americans would make a mad rush to Cuba in the first year the forbidden island opens for U.S. tourism.

This observation was posted to the Travel Agent Central blog today.

Three years later, I think those experts may be lowering those figures a bit. And it’s not because the desire by Americans to see the unspoiled destination has wavered. It’s because by the time travel to Cuba is made legal, many Americans may have already been there – and legally for that matter.

It appears as though tour operators are starting to get the hang of this People-to-People initiative, something several operators still didn’t follow accordingly when it was first introduced. The People to People education program is an initiative that requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country.

It was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program during his first term. Insight Cuba got the ball rolling in 2011. After Insight Cuba became the first licensed operator to sell Cuba through the People-to-People initiative, other operators joined suit, including Collette Vacations, National Geographic Expeditions and International Expeditions.

But requirements were tightened last year after criticism that many of the trips were masking recreational tourism to the Communist island. Cuban-American Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida criticized the government for approving licenses for groups that included activities like salsa dancing.

But even the operators who failed at their first cracks of sending clients to Cuba have refined their programs to adhere to the tighter restrictions. Back in 2011, Globus was looking into sending U.S. clients to Cuba in 2012 on religious tours approved by the Center for Caribbean Religion and Culture. Those plans, however, were scrapped after the U.S. Department of the Treasury began cracking down on who these operators were getting their licenses from.

In May, however, Globus announced that it obtained a license that allows the operator to sell Cuba legally to U.S. clients through the People-to-People initiative. And like Globus, Abercrombie & Kent USA, which had tried to enter the Cuba market in September 2011, but pulled its programs pending a review and clarification of Cuba regulations, has also been approved recently for a license through the initiative.

Abercrombie & Kent’s inaugural departure of Cuba: People to People is September 6-15, followed by additional departures throughout 2013 and into 2014.

Meanwhile, A U.S.-based tour company recently announced the launch of new People-to-People trips to Cuba that would transport U.S. citizens there by ship.

Road Scholar, a Boston-based company, is offering the trips from Jamaica and Miami, with stops in Havana and other parts of Cuba.

The U.S. Treasury Department confirmed in an email that transportation “whether by bus, boat or taxi” in Cuba is permitted as part of the People-to-People programs as long as it does not detract from a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

Central Holidays also recently added Cuba to the list with a new People-to-People “Discover Cuba” cultural exchange offer. The program allows travelers to connect with the country’s architecture, music, art and culture in an authentic way by facilitating exchange between them and residents.

Earlier this month, Tauck reported that it will again be offering departures of its People-to-People cultural exchange journeys to Cuba, following the recent renewal of its license to operate tours to the island nation. The Connecticut-based company had been among several tour operators awaiting license renewals from OFAC, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, Tauck notes. Tauck’s first departure to Cuba under its renewed license will begin on October 6, 2013, with additional trips scheduled throughout the remainder of the year.

Finally, with a two-year license renewal in hand, Insight Cuba, the tour operator that is arguably responsible for getting the People-to-People ball rolling, looks to the future regarding its partnership with General Tours World Traveler for travel through 2015.

The longest running operator of legal people-to-people trips to Cuba, Insight Cuba received an extended authorization from the OFAC. General Tours will continue to make travel agent referrals to Insight Cuba for its 150 published departures, presently scheduled through June 2014 with new dates forthcoming.

Presenting some of the broadest array of tours in the market, clients can choose from five signature itineraries. Departure dates and fares through June 2014 have been published; those through 2015 will be announced shortly. In addition to its five signature tours special group arrangements are available, providing unique access to people and places the average tourist rarely sees.

We may be a few years before all Americans can legally travel to Cuba, People-to-People initiative or not, but we advise trying to get clients there now. Once the embargo is lifted, the unspoiled glamour and charm of Cuba from its classic 1950’s American automobiles to miles and miles of unobstructed beach views will all be gone.

Get there while it’s still illegal for most, but legal for a few. There’s nothing more surreal than being in a place that most of your fellow countrymen and women are forbidden to go to. Just make sure you do it legally by contacting any of the credible operators we mentioned in this story.