Monday, September 10, 2012

Confusion and setbacks amid changes to Cuba travel rules

By Gay Nagle Myers
Anyone who feels confused about what’s going on with the people-to-people travel programs to Cuba has lots of company.

Think government bureaucracy run amok, combined with consumer (and media) confusion. Then add operator stress due to trip cancellations and/or postponements, staff cutbacks and loss of revenue, and you begin to get a sense of where this program is heading.

Dozens of license-renewal applications, which are required each year by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), are backlogged in OFAC’s Washington office.

Meanwhile, companies previously licensed to operate the programs are in a holding pattern, unable to move forward with their fall and winter programs.  When the program was discontinued in 2003, the licenses had a two-year validity period. The Obama administration reinstated the program in January 2011, but licenses are now valid for just one year.

Companies began receiving their licenses to operate the programs in June 2011 and beyond, which means that the majority of the licenses have already expired or soon will.

Of the dozens of licenses submitted for renewal, only a handful have received the go-ahead.

OFAC is not transparent about which companies received the licenses in the first place, although the figure has been placed at 140, said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD), a nonprofit aimed at normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“Travel is the key to breaking through the suspicion and hostility of 52 years,” McAuliff said.

FRD has applied for a license to operate people-to-people programs but has been turned down five times, McAuliff said. The latest application is pending.

OFAC’s new guidelines for the people-to-people programs demand additional information from the licensees.

The original application for a license was a six-page document. Operators had to provide a sample itinerary, describe the group activities and explain how the trip activities would promote interactions of a cultural or educational nature.

OFAC revised the process in May, with applications now averaging about 100 pages.

This was done “to deter abuses because of reports we received,” said Jeff Braunger, OFAC’s program manager for Cuba travel licensing.

Companies operating people-to-people programs, including Insight Cuba, Friendly Planet, National Geographic Expeditions, Collette Vacations and Austin-Lehman, applied for and received a specific one-year license at different times in 2011 to operate the programs. They did not need to partner with a nonprofit organization to get the license or to operate the programs.

But those companies and all companies holding a specific people-to-people license had to then turn to U.S.-licensed Travel Service Providers to handle all travel arrangements for the programs, including booking hotels, air, tours and activities in Cuba. Charter air arrangements are handled by Carrier Service Providers.

A new twist in OFAC’s latest regulations is that the service providers no longer are authorized to issue the tourist cards needed for entry into Cuba.

In the past, they would get blank entry cards, fill them out with the information on the passenger who was going on a U.S.-licensed people-to-people program and attach them to the air charter ticket.

Now, the travelers themselves must obtain the tourist cards from the Cuban Interest Section housed in the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

The change was made by the U.S. government, “although OFAC never warned anyone about the change, nor, to my knowledge, did they consult with the Cubans,” one operator said.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtraveleekly.

My comment:

One of the many counterproductive aspects of current policy is that holders of people to people licenses only have to use an OFAC licensed Travel Service Provider if they want to "buy American".  The regulations are clear that they can use any non-US agency to do their bookings of hotels, transportation and programs.  Only about 250 American companies are TSPs.  Two thirds are based in Florida, and the vast majority are Cuban American.  The rest of the travel industry is closed out of a substantial business opportunity and the diversity of Americans traveling to Cuba is affected.

John McAuliff of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development

By Gay Nagle Myers
In January 2011, the Obama administration rolled out long-awaited regulations to reinstate the people-to-people category of licensed group travel to Cuba. Many of these programs, which got off to a smashing start last fall by organizations licensed to run such programs, now are languishing as organizers wait for renewals of their one-year licenses by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). People-to-people travel to Cuba falls under OFAC scrutiny because that office is charged with administering and enforcing economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy against targeted foreign states. In an interview with Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers, John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit organization that seeks to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, offered his views on the complicated, confusing and ever-changing regulations.

Q: Why the delay in the license renewals?

 OFAC issued more restrictive guidelines in May, claiming that some organizations had violated stipulations that called for program activities to be of a cultural or educational nature. It took a month or so to figure it all out.

OFAC is subverting people-to-people travel by tying up license renewals in bureaucratic nonsense. About 140 licenses originally were granted, but only a few have been renewed. OFAC won't reveal which organizations got the licenses in the first place, how many were denied and which have been renewed. I estimate there are at least 10 times as many denials as approvals.

OFAC keeps saying that "we're in the process of reviewing," but meanwhile those previously licensed operators with fall and winter people-to-people programs to Cuba have lost the ability to sell those programs since they don't yet have their renewals. Cuba isn't the kind of trip that a traveler can book on the spur of the moment. Companies have had to lay off employees. It is an insane process.

One applicant's first license renewal version totaled 17,000 words as he sought to specify two or so people-to-people events each a.m. and p.m. OFAC tossed it back, saying the document did not illustrate how the encounters "resulted in meaningful engagement for both travelers and Cubans." His second document was 25,000 words.

Q: What's the solution or resolution?

 The problem would not exist if licenses had been issued for two years, as was the case in the Clinton administration. The solution on licensing is very simple: All purposeful travel must qualify for a general license based on the nontourist affirmation of the traveler, just as is the case now for Cuban Americans, universities and religious organizations. This will take OFAC out of the business of judging and second-guessing travel motives of Americans and enable individuals to create their own programs in Cuba, using public transport, renting cars, staying in privately owned bed-and-breakfasts and eating in privately owned restaurants instead of, or after, going on a supervised group tour. In many ways, that offers the most authentic people-to-people travel experiences.

Q: What about the issue of the tourist entry cards required of U.S. travelers to Cuba?

 OFAC wants to create a new level of confusion by making the Cubans the administrators of this process. OFAC stipulated that the Travel Service Providers can no longer issue the tourist cards. Passengers must obtain them from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington.

This change is not something the Cubans are set up to do, at least for now. The change was made by the U.S. government, not the Cuban government.

Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. 

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