Thursday, April 2, 2015

Airbnb Enters Cuba Casa Particular Market

Airbnb expanding to Cuba following new trade regulations

Airbnb expanding to Cuba following new trade regulations
Want to head to Cuba now that you (sort of) can? Check Airbnb for lodging
The popular online home-rental service Airbnb will allow American travelers to book lodging in Cuba starting Thursday in the most significant U.S. business expansion on the island since the declaration of detente between the two countries late last year.
For a half-century, the U.S. trade embargo has blocked such businesses from entering the Cuban market. In January, however, the Obama administration loosened a series of restrictions on U.S. business in an attempt to encourage the growth of the island's small private sector.
Airbnb searches for "Cuba" will now turn up more than 1,000 properties across the island, with 40 percent in Havana and the rest in tourist destinations such as Cienfuegos a few hours away on the southern coast. The company has been sending teams of representatives to Cuba for three months to sign up home owners, and plans to expand steadily in coming months.
"We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb's biggest markets in Latin America," said Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb, the website and mobile app that allows users to book rooms in more than 1 million private homes around the world. "We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago."
One of the most developed and important elements of Cuba's entrepreneurial sector is a network of thousands of privately owned rooms and houses for tourists. Starting in the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s as homey, bed and breakfast-style alternatives to Cuba's generally grim state-run hotels, "casas particulares," or private homes, have expanded into an industry with options ranging from small apartments in central Havana to multi-room beach houses with top-notch food and maid service.
The Airbnb announcement is the latest in a series of U.S. business moves into Cuba. In February, New Jersey-based IDT Corp. and Cuban state telecoms firm ETECSA agreed to connect phone calls from the United States directly to Cuba. Previously, they were routed through third countries such as Italy and Spain.
Netflix and MasterCard have also unblocked their services in Cuba, but only a handful of islanders have connections fast enough to stream Netflix, and most credit-card issuers still prohibit transactions from Cuba, making MasterCard's move largely symbolic so far.
The Airbnb move could be the most significant development in terms of putting money in the pockets of entrepreneurs across the island and bolstering them in a stagnant state-run economy — leading goals for the Obama administration in warming relations with Cuba.
"I think this is going to help our business prosper, to definitely improve, not just private business, but everything here," said Israel Rivero, who owns an immaculately renovated, pre-war apartment in central Havana. He charges $25 a night per room, but the price will go to $30 on Airbnb to cover fees and currency exchange costs.
Kuehne said Airbnb's plans had been welcomed by Cuban and U.S. authorities. Cuba has been wrestling with how to accommodate a surge of travelers since the announcement of detente. Trips to the island have been up nearly 20 percent in recent months, mostly by non-U.S. travelers, and many hotels are fully booked, particularly the few able to offer service close to international standards.
For the time being, non-U.S. travelers will not be able to use Airbnb.
Because of continuing restrictions under the U.S. embargo, the company's Cuba listing will only be available to U.S. travelers visiting under one of 12 U.S.-government approved categories of legal travel, ranging from professional research to religious activities.
While virtually all U.S. travel to Cuba previously required individual licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department, the January changes essentially shift it to an honor system by allowing travelers to fill out a form asserting they are going for one of the approved purposes.
A major drawback for the Cuban private lodging business has been the difficulty of renting from overseas on an island with one of the world's lower rates of Internet penetration and a constantly malfunctioning phone system. While dozens of websites such as TripAdvisor have listings for lodgings, most only provide phone numbers or email addresses for owners instead of the quick online booking and guaranteed reservations that Airbnb will offer, as it does in more than 190 countries.
"Our plan is to make it substantially easier," Kuehne said.
While that sentiment holds for travelers, owners still have to grapple with the lack of access to the Internet across the island. Most will have to turn to pricey state-run Internet centers or hotel lobbies to check on reservations. And with much of the international banking system off-limits to Cubans due to U.S. sanctions, owners will depend on friends or business associates to receive payments from Airbnb in non-U.S. bank accounts.
Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the largest firms organizing group tours to Cuba, said home owners have already been investing in amenities such as central air conditioning and improved water pressure in order to be able to charge far more than $25 a night for basic service.
"You're starting to see places that can compete with three- and four-star hotels," Laverty said.
Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press 

Educational Exchange Prospects

March 31, 2015 by Lisandro Pérez
A New Era? The Outlook for U.S.-Cuba Academic Relations
A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations was ushered in on December 17th when the presidents of both countries announced they were prepared to end nearly six decades of estrangement. I had nearly lost hope that in my lifetime there would be a rapprochement between my adopted nation and the island where I was born and which I left 55 years ago with my parents.
I have made the study of my homeland my academic career, so I could not be more thrilled about the prospect of a normalization of relations. I also welcome the evident rise in interest in Cuba among universities and nonprofits in the United States since the announcement. In February I participated as a panelist in a teleconference on Cubaorganized by the Institute of International Education. The event drew an audience of some 180 representatives of colleges, universities, and academic organizations from throughout the country.
For those in the academic and nonprofit sectors who are planning Cuba-related activities for the first time, it is important to realize that, unlike what many are assuming here in the United States, things have not suddenly changed and, in fact, some of the more challenging aspects of establishing academic contacts with Cuba are not likely to change anytime soon. The success of any institution venturing into the Cuba field will depend on having realistic expectations of what can be accomplished, familiarity with a fairly unique context for international academic relations, and an ability to overcome frustrations and obstacles.
The keys are: pragmatism, perseverance, and patience.
One reason the December 17th announcement is not a game changer in terms of academic contacts is that such contacts have long been allowed by both governments, albeit with difficulties. The U.S. embargo has for years exempted legitimate academic travel from its provisions. Strong academic ties and friendships have been forged through the years despite the history of hostility between the two governments. Cuban participation in the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), for example, dates back to the early 1970s, and the association’s Cuba section, which I am privileged to co-chair this year with a colleague and friend from Cuba, now numbers 533 members with an almost even representation of Cuban and non-Cuban members. Cuban-American scholars have been among those who have worked to strengthen those ties, along with colleagues from throughout the United States, Canada, and the rest of the hemisphere. Many colleges and universities in the United States have years of experience sending their students to Cuba.
Those who have engaged in those contacts, however, have faced stiff challenges, challenges that are likely to persist into a new era of relations. Both governments, for example, have frequently used political criteria to grant or deny visas to scholars.
But perhaps the greatest source of frustration when one engages with Cuba is that any visit to the island for academic purposes must go through official channels. Although the United States still does not allow tourist travel to Cuba, the Cubans will normally issue a tourist visa to the bearer of a U.S. passport. But that tourist visa cannot be used to enter Cuba for purposes other than tourism, such as research or study. Visas for academic activities are issued by the Foreign Ministry once it approves a formal request from an academic or research entity that has reviewed the purpose and plan for the trip. The Cuban entity then becomes responsible for the visitors, even arranging logistics, such as charter buses for student groups, as most such needs are provided only by state enterprises.
The review and approval process results in a backlog of requests from U.S. scholars and universities to visit the island. The entity that up to now has shouldered the burden of processing those proposals is the Office of International Relations of the University of Havana, although other state-affiliated intellectual, research, and cultural organizations have also served as hosts for visitors.  This process of official approval for visits or programs causes a severe funnel effect that requires partners in the United States to make plans as far in advance as possible, be flexible on dates, and have patience.
Newcomers to Cuba exchanges should be keenly aware that the island’s academic, research, and cultural institutions are very rich in intellectual resources. The range and depth of the scholarship is impressive and builds on a strong tradition of intellectual work that dates back to the early 19th century. This May’s annual LASA Congress has 368 colleagues from Cuba on the program.
Knowledge of the history of academic contact and of the intellectual richness found in the island’s institutions is important in order to avoid approaching Cuba with a Columbus-like attitude. It is important to follow the universal norms of international scholarly engagement: respect and reciprocity. Don’t just ask what you or your students can get out of establishing ties with Cuba. Bring something to the table that would be of interest to your Cuban counterparts. Figure out how Cuban scholars can enrich your institution’s research and teaching, and find a way to facilitate that by inviting them to your campus. Travel abroad is highly valued by Cuban colleagues.
While Cuban academic institutions are rich in intellectual resources, they are poor in material resources. At present, exchanges have to be funded entirely by the U.S. side. Visitors from Cuba must be fully sponsored, and academics from the United States must have their own sources of support when traveling to Cuba. Even when and if it becomes possible, it is not likely that Cuban students coming to the United States to enroll in degree programs will be self-supporting.
A select group of foundations and other nonprofits in the United States have long supported and facilitated Cuban academic exchanges. The Ford and the Christopher Reynolds Foundations, as well as the Social Science Research Council stand out in this regard. Hopefully, this new opening in relations will encourage other organizations to support academic and cultural ties with Cuba. The Institute of International Education has signaled its intention to be a player in expanding U.S.-Cuba partnerships.
This new era of bilateral relations may make it possible for Cuba to be included in the many international education programs funded by the U.S. government, something that has long been barred not just by Washington, but also by Havana. Thus far, the only noteworthy U.S. government support for work on Cuba is the Department of State’sUSAID program that funds surreptitious activities in the island designed to bring about changes in the Cuban political system. Not surprisingly, the Cuban government has forbidden the island’s educational and academic institutions from entering into projects that have U.S. government support.
When and if legitimate U.S. government programs, such as the Fulbright and Benjamin Gilman awards and U.S. Department of Education institutional grants for international study, are opened up to participation by Cuban scholars and Cuba-bound scholars and students in the United States, it is likely that Cuban officials will permit participation in such programs. That would have a huge impact, as would the possibility that Cuban institutions and scholars may apply directly to U.S. sources of support, public and private.
Cuba is a uniquely fascinating place because of the resilience and warmth of its people, its extraordinary and frequently tragic history at the crossroads of the hemisphere and in the cross hairs of the United States, its tradition of resistance and revolution, and the complex mosaic of its culture and artistic expressions. That is why I cringe when I hear people say they want to experience Cuba “before it changes,” as if its principal value could be reduced to a Cold War tropical theme park, with its quaintly decaying buildings and vintage Chevys and Fords. Cuban history, society, and culture offer much richer learning opportunities, beyond the nostalgic allure of its frozen-in-time landscape.
Lisandro Pérez is a professor and chair of the department of Latin American and Latina/o studies at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

An excellent summary.  Three additions:

1)  the new OFAC regulations provide a general license for parents who want to visit children participating in semester long programs

2)  US rules need to permit unaffiliated students to enroll in Spanish language classes at the University of Havana and other Cuban public and private institutions.

3)  Two persons from the University of Cienfuegos are expected to participate at the annual NAFSA conference in Boston and will offer a poster session about their institution.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Travel Booming

Winter tourism season booms in Cuba

03/09/2015 5:41 PM 
 03/10/2015 8:46 AM
A dozen tour buses idled along the Malecón and so many tourists were snapping pictures of the giant images of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on a recent day at the Plaza de la Revolución that it looked like a Communist theme park.
Foreign visitors are coming to Cuba in droves this winter season. International visitors were up by 16 percent in January to a record 371,160 compared to the previous year, according to figures from Cuba’s Office of National Statistics and Information.
That came on the heels of a record-setting year in 2014 when 3.003 million international visitors arrived in Cuba. And that’s not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who travel to the island to visit family.
Canada led the way with 181,101 visitors in January for a 15 percent increase, but Germany with 15,832 and England with 14,526 visitors showed the largest percentage increases. Visitor arrivals for those countries were up 37.8 percent and 32.2 percent, respectively.
Rounding out the Top 10 for international visitors were France, Italy, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Russia. However, arrivals from Argentina and Russia — both plagued by economic problems — were down by 24.1 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
Cruise travelers increased from 928 visitors in January 2014, to 3,937 visitors this January, but the industry is still in its infancy in Cuba.
During January, visitors from the United States didn’t crack the top 18 international markets for Cuba. Such visitors fell into the “other” category, which at 75,435 visitors, was up 14 percent.
New, more liberal rules for U.S. travelers were only announced Jan. 15. Travel operators report a flurry of American interest in booking trips to Cuba, but it’s too early to see a major bump in U.S. travel to the island.
However, since President Barack Obama announced Dec. 17 that the United States and Cuba planned to renew diplomatic ties and the U.S. was embarking on a limited travel and commercial opening with Cuba, there’s been a buzz about the island.
Canadian travel websites, for example, have been filled with commentary about how now is the time to visit Cuba before it is overrun by American travelers.
“For Cuba it sounds like the dawn of a chapter of economic opportunity; though for Canadians it’s more likely sunset on an era of cheap winter vacations,” Tony Ward and John Middleton, Canadian tourism professors, wrote in The Globe and Mail.
The new U.S. rules allow visitors in 12 categories, including educational, research and humanitarian and participants in sporting events and performances, to travel to the island without seeking prior approval from the U.S. government. The new guidelines also make it easier for travel providers to plan trips and sell tickets.
But Americans in those categories are all supposed to engage in purposeful travel — rather than lazy days at the beach and trips planned solely around tourism sites.
Presumably that means they won’t be visiting Jardines del Rey, a sandy archipelago with coral reefs off Cuba’s northern coast that is being developed as a rival to Cuba’s famed Varadero Beach. It too is having its best winter season ever.
Located in the provinces of Camagüey and Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba, Jardines del Rey has 16 hotels with more than 6,000 rooms and will be the site of Cuba’s International Tourism Fair in May.
So far this winter, AIN — the Cuban National Information Agency — reports that Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo, which are part of Jardines del Rey, have been hosting a record 7,000 visitors a day. The destination is receiving 40 flights weekly.
AIN also recently reported that a Chinese company, Beijing Enterprises Holdings, was in talks with the Cuban state company Palmares to form a joint venture to develop a resort complex with a five-star hotel and golf course in Bellomonte, east of Havana.
Air China is looking into establishing a direct flight between Beijing and Havana in the fall, according to Ma Kequian, the economic and commercial officer at the Chinese Embassy in Havana.

Read more here:
Tourists take in the sights from a double-decker tour bus a day after the second round of diplomatic talks between the United States and Cuban officials took place in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 28, 2015.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Visit by President of Black Hawk College

BHC president visits Cuba; closer ties may result

    BHC president  visits Cuba; closer ties may result
Posted: Friday, March 6, 2015 8:26 pm | Updated: 11:48 pm, Fri Mar 6, 2015.
MOLINE -- A trip to Cuba could mean closer ties between America's neighbor and Black Hawk College. 
Black Hawk President Bettie A. Truitt was among a group of Illinois community college officials who visited the island nation from Feb. 15 to 22. The trip was organized by the Illinois Community College Board and the delegation met Cuban professors, students and education administrators, and observed farming and small-business practices.
Ms. Truitt said she hopes to establish exchange programs for professors and students. She is already working to bring one professor, Mario Mas Vidal, to Black Hawk as a speaker because his lecture on Cuba's history and culture impressed her so much.
"We're thinking he would be a great fit for our students," she said. 
His talk, early on in the trip, spanned the era from around the Cuban Revolution to the 1990s, when Cuba experienced scarce food and limited electricity because of the loss of support from the Soviet Union after that nation broke up. 
She said she would like to give other professors the same opportunity and establish an exchange for students, first in the arts -- where she said the Cubans have put a lot of emphasis -- but later broadening it to other fields. 
Adding a section on Cuban art into Black Hawks' art appreciation classes is another idea Ms. Truitt is considering, she said.
The group also visited a family that raised goats and produced honey and fruit on a small farm, she said. The farm was largely self-sufficient. 
Cuba's government has begun allowing small-scale entrepreneurs to operate businesses like restaurants, often from their homes, she said.  
The farm family, for example, was running a small pottery business to supplement their income from agriculture, Ms. Truitt said. 
There is a lot of opportunity there for an exchange of ideas on business practice, she said. 
Ms. Truitt said she found the Cubans warm and hopeful.
In December, President Barack Obama announced that the United States will try to normalize relations with the island nation. 
The U.S.'s relationship with Cuba, which has a communist government, has been dangerous at worst and chill at best for decades. Travel between the two nations has long been heavily restricted.
"They're (the Cubans) looking to America for what their tomorrow is going to look like," Ms. Truitt said.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

George Mason University Summer Program in Havana

Undergraduates can spend one month in Cuba earning SIX credits in Anthropology, Global Affairs, History, and/or Honors!

The Center for Global Education at George Mason University invites you to participate in Exploring Cuba: Past, Present and Future.
Students will explore and experience Cuba in a moment of transition. Cuba’s unique political and economic history has long made it the subject of intense intellectual debate. The recent announcement of a “normalization” of relations between the U.S. and Cuba have Cubans, along with the rest of the world, creating expectations about what changes the future will bring, making this a particularly fascinating moment to travel to the island. Through study of Cuba’s geography, history, politics, and cultural production, students will discover what makes this Caribbean island so unique. The program is centered in the city of Havana, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, and will also include travel to other cultural patrimony sites. 

No Spanish language skills required! All excursions and lectures will be given in English. 

Applications for this program are due on March 20. For more information, please contact me directly at or call 703-993-2155.

Ms. Denise Elles-Mdahuar 
Program Officer
George Mason University
Center for Global Education
Johnson Center, Room 235
4400 University Drive, MS 2B8
Fairfax, VA 22030
voice 703-993-2155 
fax 703-993-2153

Monday, February 23, 2015

University of Alabama Creates Cuba Center

UA establishes new research center in Cuba

The University of Alabama Board of Trustees approved the establishment of the Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship at the University on Feb. 6. The new research center will build on the activities of the Alabama-Cuba Initiative, providing educational opportunities in Cuba for UA students 
and faculty.
The establishment of the Center comes at a historical time as the United States and Cuban governments work toward normalization of relationships between the two countries.
“For students this is a transformational experience. It is hard to see things in the same way once you step into the shoes of a Cuban student or teacher,“ said Bob Olin, dean of the College of Arts and Science. “Over the years I have taken six groups of students to work on collaborative book projects with Cuban artists and writers. Working sometimes in challenging situations, Cuban artists have adopted our Alabama students and shown them a world far apart from what a tourist may see. These experiences have beautifully matured 
my students.”
The Center provides resources for supporting University projects and expanding collaborations between the University and Cuban institutions. It will be led by two co-directors: 
professor of Spanish Michael Schnepf, who has spent every spring in Cuba for a number of years directing the study abroad program, and professor of library and information sciences Steve Miller, who has been involved in the Cuba Initiative’s activities.
The Center will have an advisory board of faculty members and administrators. It will be a resource for faculty who wish to conduct research in Cuba and for undergraduate and graduate students who wish to study in Cuba.
“This new center allows us to dive deeper into educational opportunities that are authorized under our educational travel license from the U.S. Department of Treasury,” Miller said. “The study of Cuba is indeed a growing research field, one for which we are prepared with our already established ties with our Cuban 
educational counterparts.”
More than 45 disciplines and departments, 85 faculty members and 75 graduate and undergraduate students have participated. 
As a result, the University is known in Cuba for its extensive and longstanding educational activities there.
Miller said they hope having the Center will help facilitate trips to the United States by Cubans for educational purposes because it has been one of the hardest things to do. The main obstacles are affordability and getting permission to travel abroad. The hope is that in the future Cuban undergraduates and graduates could come to the University to obtain degrees.
“I wish every student would seek out study abroad opportunities,“ Miller said. “So here we have a country just 1,000 miles away from our shores where our students can enter into an entirely different and rich culture. The same would be true of Cuban students 
coming here.”
Olin said he encourages faculty and students to consider working in Cuba.

“The University of Alabama is, I believe, the most respected university by Cubans because of a steady level of work there and the clear message that we are in this together,” Olin said. “We faculty and students come together with our Cuban friends in the middle. We learn as much from Cubans and they learn from us. It’s a 
great partnership.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Yacht Tour of Western Cuba


Cuba cruise tour on the yacht Panorama

(TRAVPR.COM) USA - February 19th, 2015 - It has never been easier to go back in time to a place so rooted in culture and history. Now, USA Citizens and all may circumnavigate western Cuba during 8 days aboard the 177ft, S/C Panorama motorsailer yacht.
The adventure tour company, Explorations, has recently announced the sailings and rates for the 2016 cruise tours. The People-to-People Cuba tour program allows you to step back in time to a country that been closed to most United States residents for half a century. The itinerary explores the western part of the island nation, which is famous for its culture, music, warm people, and art with daily tours while sailing from Havana to Cienfuegos.
Even though Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West, Florida, for many in the USA the island has remained mysterious. Closed to most travel by US Citizens for years, the island is an enigma in the Western Hemisphere. New regulations by the US Government effective January 16, 2015, make it easier than in many years for USA passport holders to visit and tour Cuba. There is no longer a reason to “sneak” to the island.
US tour operators with the proper US License can offer tours to Cuba under US Government’s sanctioned People-To-People cultural exchange programs. The program was started in 1999 and later banned from 2003 - 2011. The new 2015 regulations relaxed even more restrictions, such as you can legally bring back $100 worth of the famed Cuban Cigars to the USA! All that is needed is a valid passport good for 6 months after return date and a Visa from the Cuban Government. The tour package includes securing the Cuban Visa and supplying the appropriate People-to-People travel license and letter of authorization.
The S/C Panorama is a 3 masted Motorsailer which can accommodate up to 49 passengers in 25 cabins. The "Panorama" was launched in 1993 and has been renovated in 2008. In 2014, the Upper Deck cabins and Lounge, as well as the Main Deck cabin en-suite bathrooms and have been refitted. This state of the art motorsailer has performed several Atlantic Ocean crossings and has sailed from the Seychelles to Monte Carlo and from the Black Sea to Tunis and offers the highest standard of accommodation and comfort safety.
The Panorama's Cuba Cruise package includes: People-to-People interaction and meaningful exchanges with locals, Small-ship ambiance, Up close and personal cruising to unique ports, All outside cabins, Meals onboard and at local restaurants, A salsa lesson or two, Touring in Old Havana with its historic architecture, Guanahacabibes National Park with its archeological sites, Cayo Largo's mangroves and salt pans, the well-preserved Spanish colonial city of Trinidad, Cienfuegos with it’s cluster of Neoclassical structures, Mandatory Cuban medical insurance, Cuban visa, Round-trip airfare from Miami to Cuba, and no packing & unpacking to change hotels.
More information about the S/C Panorama Cuba Cruise and another Cuba tours can be found on Explorations' website of Founded in 1992, Explorations, Inc., offers educational adventures of discovery in Latin America, introducing discerning travelers to indigenous cultures and the natural world. Explorations’ staff are knowledgeable, sincere, and reliable.
- See more at: