Friday, October 7, 2011

Update on Austin-Lehman and Insight Cuba trips

Austin-Lehman says 'a lot to learn' with Cuba tours

By Gay Nagle Myers
Havana, CubaAustin-Lehman Adventures is the newest entry in the Cuba people-to-people tourism arena.

The firm's Real Cuba program will launch in February with a series of six 10-day departures through June, geared to 12 participants each.

Billings, Mont.-based Austin-Lehman Adventures, founded in 1974, obtained approval from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control on Sept. 15, after filing an application late last January.

"There is a lot to learn," said Dan Austin, founder and director. "We've never had programs in Cuba before. One of the biggest challenges is securing accommodations, because many of the really good hotels already are booked. Americans are the last ones to join this party."

Austin-Lehman partnered with author and Latin American authority Chris Baker to create an itinerary for the program.

"The itinerary focuses on daily interactions with the Cuban people," Austin said. "It is purposeful travel that adheres to the strict guidelines and rules set forth by OFAC."

Each of the six departures will follow the same itinerary. Baker will serve as a guide on several departures along with an in-country Cuban host.

Activities include meetings with community leaders involved in a 20-year-old restoration project; a visit to the studio-home of Cuban artist Jose Fuster; a trip to Finca Pinar San Luis, the rural farming home of the late tobacco farmer and Cuban cigar "ambassador" Alejandro Robaina; and a tour of Che Guevara's headquarters during the Cuban missile crisis.

"We will meet historians, museum directors, artists, musicians, photographers, gardeners, cooks and real people in their own neighborhoods, villages and towns," Austin said.

Price has not yet been determined, although Austin said it would be under $4,000, a price that will cover roundtrip charter air from Miami to Havana, hotel, meals and all trip costs.

Florida-based Marazul Charters, a company licensed by OFAC as a Travel Service Provider, is handling the trip arrangements.

"Excitement about an ALA program in Cuba has been running high among staff and past trip alumni," Austin said. "There's already a wait list with enough interest to fill the first two departures."

He described Cuba as an untapped market that "fits well with our core goals of exotic/desirable destinations, easy access from the U.S., lots of activities, a distinct and colorful culture, a friendly and welcoming host population and opportunities to immerse travelers in authentic Cuban life."

New Insight Cuba trip

Meanwhile, Insight Cuba, which launched its first people-to-people programs last month, added one more trip to its roster of more than 126 departures through August 2012.

The company is collaborating with the Havana Marathon organization to allow U.S. athletes to participate in the marathon and half-marathon on Nov. 20 as part of a five-day package running Nov. 17 to 21.

The marathon course winds through Havana, passing the Hotel Nacional, Revolution Square, the Capitolio building, three fortresses along the harbor and the Malecon esplanade along the sea.

The program, priced at $1,995 per person, double ($2,295, single), covers the marathon entry fee, a medical checkup, all meals, accommodations at the Melia Cohiba in Havana, ground transportation and the services of a Cuban host to coordinate marathon details and people-to-people activities.

As with all of Insight's programs, roundtrip charter air from Miami to Havana is extra. Marazul Charters, Insight Cuba's TSP, is handling the travel arrangements.

In coming months, U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba on people-to-people programs might be able to fly on authorized charter flights from additional U.S. gateways.

Charter air travel from the U.S. to Cuba has broadened to include more U.S. airports. Currently, the bulk of that travel is Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba to visit relatives under a policy change by the Obama administration in 2009. The charter flights also carry people on humanitarian, academic and religious programs.

The launch of the people-to-people cultural exchange programs, following an Obama policy change last January, opens another market for the charter operators as well as additional airports.

Previously, only Miami, Los Angeles and New York were authorized, although Miami had long been the main gateway for Cuba travel. But at least 11 other airports have been granted licenses in the past few months, including Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Fort Myers in Florida as well as Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; New Orleans; Oakland, Calif.; and San Juan.

However, that does not mean that charter flights to Cuba are operating from all these airports at this time. Nor does it mean that anyone can book a flight. Tight regulations apply to both traveler and the programs' operators.

Regulations pertaining to charter flight operators are just as strict. Only charter operators licensed as Carrier Service Providers may arrange charter flights to Cuba.

CSPs are licensed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control to operate air charter services between the U.S. and Cuba.

Charter companies lease aircraft from scheduled carriers, including American, Delta and JetBlue.

The first charter flights from Tampa to Cuba in 50 years departed on Sept. 8, operated by Miami-based Xael Charters. The company offers flights from Tampa every Thursday, in addition to its five weekly flights from Miami to Havana.

ABC Charters, based in South Florida, launched its inaugural flight from Tampa on Sept. 10.

Airline Brokers, based in Coral Gables, Fla., began weekly service from Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 17, using a leased JetBlue aircraft.

Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, said, "Insight will most likely continue to guide our participants through Miami until other routes are established and reliable."

National Geographic Expeditions plans the first of its 12 departures on Nov. 26. All flights will depart from Miami.

The firm reported that all its departures have sold out, "but we are still actively taking wait-list reservations. We have requested a number of new departures and hope to have those confirmed soon."

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