The San Francisco de Asis plaza lies near the harbor in Old Havana. The area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is included in many of the multiplying educational tours to Cuba. All such travel also includes encounters with Cuban artists, farmers, writers or other locals.

Franklin Reyes • Associated Press,

As Cuba opens to travel, tour companies step up

  • New York Times
  • September 20, 2013 - 2:32 PM

Just two years after the Obama administration relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, nearly every major tour company is jockeying for the hearts and wallets of U.S. tourists. And why not? When the Grand Circle Foundation, part of Grand Circle Corp., offered its first licensed educational exchange trip to Cuba (known as a people-to-people tour) in 2011, it attracted about 1,000 travelers. Last year that figure jumped to 1,900. In 2013, the company expects to take more than 2,200 U.S. tourists to Cuba. And that’s just one agency.

People-to-people tours are education-based trips — one can’t simply show up and luxuriate at the beach — that can be offered only by travel companies that have obtained a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. This year, there is even more competition, with experienced operators introducing their first Cuba tours. At the same time, companies well practiced at taking travelers to Cuba are widening their reach to particular groups; for instance, in April, Insight Cuba partnered with Coda International Tours to offer luxury gay tours of the island.

To comply with the Treasury Department’s people-to-people educational exchange rules, all of the following tours include personal encounters with Cuban artists, farmers, fishermen, doctors, mechanics or other locals.

If you want to go, here’s what you can expect to see, do and spend (keep in mind that in many cases, airfare is not included in the price).

Abercrombie & Kent

This month the luxury travel company began offering a 10-day program for up to 24 people that includes a private salsa lesson, attending a “Buena Vista Social Club”-style concert and meeting Salvador Gonzáles, an artist who has transformed an alley in Havana known as Callejón de Hamel into an Afro-Cuban art and music destination. Participants will also tour Havana with a local architect; eat at a a family-run restaurant and listen to the owners discuss Cuban cuisine; tour Las Terrazas, a UNESCO biosphere reserve; attend a lecture on the history of U.S.-Cuba relations, and even play baseball with locals. From $5,395 a person for double occupancy (the single supplement is $895). Information:

Classic Journeys

This company, known for its countryside walks, is offering tours to introduce travelers to “Cuban people from all strata of society.” The itinerary includes meetings with the artists and residents of Luyan, a community development project; an exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage site Old Havana; discussions with religious leaders about Afro-Cuban culture and the Santera religion, and a look at the life of Ernest Hemingway during his time in Cuba. From $4,895 a person for double occupancy (the single supplement is $695). Information:

Discovery Tours by Gate 1

For the first time, Discovery Tours is taking groups of 10 to 18 people on a nine-day tour to listen to traditional Cuban music at the Museo de Artes Decorativas; learn about Old Havana’s restoration projects from local city planners and architects; attend an Afro-Cuban religious ceremony; beef up on U.S.-Cuba relations during a policy talk, and chat with jazz musicians after they perform at the Instituto Cubano de la Música. Rates from $3,599 a person for double occupancy; from $3,918 for single occupancy. Information:


Grand Circle Foundation

This nonprofit arm of Grand Circle Corp. offers small group tours, like Cuba: A Bridge Between Cultures, and new this year is a 13-day tour called Cuba: Music, Culture & the Roots of Revolution. Stops include the island’s second-largest city, Santiago de Cuba, where visitors can learn about the area’s Afro-Cuban influences; Baracoa, near the landing place of Christopher Columbus, and, of course, Havana. Rates from $4,395 for double occupancy; no single supplements for the rest of 2013. Information:

Insight Cuba

In response to demand for shorter getaway options, Insight Cuba, which specializes in small people-to-people trips, is offering a six-day tour called Vintage Cuba for up to two dozen people. It takes travelers from the colonial town of Santa Clara (home of the Che Guevara Mausoleum) to Havana. From $2,995 a person for double occupancy; from $3,395 for single occupancy. Information:

Smithsonian Journeys

This nine-day tour from Miami includes an architectural walking tour of Old Havana with stops at workshops to chat with artisans about restoring the area; a visit to the studio and home of Fuster, the artist; Ernest Hemingway’s estate, Finca Viga, where he lived and worked for more than 20 years; the University of Havana to meet with professors and students, and the Casa de Africa to learn about Africa’s influence on Cuba. From $5,495 a person for double occupancy; from $6,045 for single occupancy. Information:

Some other groups with licenses to operate people-to-people Cuba tours include Austin-Lehman Adventures, Friendly Planet Travel and the Center for Cuban Studies.

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