ERIC RUTH - The News Journal of Wilmington, Del. (AP)
NEWARK, Del. (AP) — Just 90 miles from the coast of the United States lies a land few Americans have seen. Bob Older says he has found a way to get them there.
Starting in August, this Newark-area travel agency owner will begin hosting regular trips to Cuba, the communist country that American tourists have been forbidden from visiting for 50 years. Working through a U.S. Treasury Department program called People-to-People, Older has won permission to lead culinary tours of the island nation, using food as a bridge to bring the two long-separated people together.
Just don't expect any wild Havana nights on this vacation.
To earn the right to lead the eight-day Cuba tours, Older had to show the feds that the trips booked through Creative Travel "will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba," and that "all participants will have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities." Older's itinerary was vetted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, and in fact was rejected once for being short on "interactive" purposes.
"It's a strict program and a strict process," Older said.
People-to-People — instituted by President Clinton, killed by President Bush and revived by President Obama — typically is used for trips that promote more idealistic endeavors than eating, such as religion or education. So Older crafted his trips to explore the economic facets of the island's food "industry" — how Cuba has begun to allow private restaurant ownership; or how availability of food may differ between the two countries.
"The People-to-People program is designed to create interaction between the people," Older said.
Of course, in this case, it will involve a lot of eating as well. Along with visits to restaurants and interviews with chefs and proprietors, the trip will include stops at an urban farm, a swing through Havana's largest and oldest market, and possibly a tour of a sugar mill, said Older, who has a background in the food business and is a self-described foodie.
There won't be any trinket-gathering or lavish spending, however. Under the program, visitors can spend a maximum of $191 a day on food and lodging, limiting Older's lodging selections. "There's a lot of red tape to go through," he said. "It took me about six months to go through the whole process. It's a lot of work."
Each monthly tour will include a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 26 people. The eight-day package, including 19 meals and hotel accommodations, is $2,399, and the flight from Miami to Havana is $449. Travel to Miami is not included in the package.
"Everyone but Americans have been going there for the past 50 years," Older said. "It's a country that is changing. It's a country that has a whole lot of changing to do."