What Is People-To-People Travel In Cuba?

What the embargo means for the future of tourism in Cuba

An enduring theme running through Cuba’s history is its thorny relationship with the behemoth neighbour just 90 miles across the Florida Straits. Since 1958 relations between the United States and Cuba have been defined by the longest running trade embargo in modern history, limiting virtually all imports/exports and severely restricting travel between the two countries.

Over the years the embargo has come under fierce criticism, both in the US and abroad. The United Nations General Assembly passed an annual resolution condemning the embargo, and organisations as diverse as the United States Chamber of Commerce and Amnesty International criticise the restrictions for their economic, social and human impact.

So there was considerable excitement when, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama announced plans to normalise relations between the United States and Cuba and work towards a gradual easing of the embargo.

One of the first changes was a loosening of the rules governing travel by US citizens. Whereas US travellers previously required a pre-approved license to visit Cuba (more precisely, to spend money in Cuba), the US Department of the Treasury has now issued several “general licenses” which permit travel without prior approval in certain circumstances.


Photo © Jim O'Donnell

People-to-people tourism

One such general license is for travel with an “educational” purpose, or which facilitates “people-to-people” contact between US and Cuban citizens.

The definition of people-to-people travel has been left vague. Officially the rules state that travellers must “maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveller and individuals in Cuba.

The revised regulations also state that US visitors must keep records for up to five years of their transactions while in Cuba to demonstrate a full-time schedule of authorised activities.

In practice it seems slightly more open to interpretation. A trip that involves visiting galleries and meeting artists, attending a ballet or music performance, learning about the country’s history and culture in a museum, or exploring the natural environment on a guided nature walk, would qualify as people-to-people travel.

Although US citizens are not allowed to spend seven days on the beach in an all-inclusive resort, including some beach time within a busy trip of cultural activity appears to be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of Uncle Sam. A couple of nights in a family-run beachfront casa particular in Playa Larga is legal. A week at a luxury resort in Varadero is not.

And when you put it that way, the ends (if not the means) seem fairly reasonable. This is precisely the sort of culturally-immersive, locally-focused tourism that the world needs more of.

Skip the resorts, get out there and discover the real Cuba instead.

On this page