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Ronen Paldi

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Considering a Trip to Cuba? Be Careful

Posted: 08/09/11 11:17 AM ET

It seems that there is an insatiable desire within the US to visit Cuba no matter how many restrictions are put in place. Now, with some of the easing of those restrictions, people are jumping at the chance. In recent months there have been a number of tour operators and travel agencies who claim that they can provide legal travel to Cuba for the average American. However, before you contact a tour operator and make those plans, you need to remember to be very, very careful.

There may well come a day when all of the restrictions that prevent an American traveler from visiting Cuba are lifted. That day has not yet come. Although things have gotten slightly easier, not just anyone who wants to go on a Caribbean vacation can pack up and head to Cuba. There are only a select few travel agents and tour operators in this country that are licensed to provide travel there legally.

Travel to Cuba has to be licensed through the U.S. Treasury Department. If you own a travel company, you cannot just set up an office and start selling people tickets to Cuba. You have to go through a very arduous government sponsored process to get a license. There are only certain reasons you can visit Cuba and going there just to luxuriate on their pristine beaches is not one of them. The only ones that seem to be able to do that are journalists with television shows for travel networks on cable.

If you decide that you want to travel to Cuba, one of the first places you should stop is the U.S. Department of Treasury. If you do a simple Google search, you can find their website. There you can search further for the restrictions currently in place for travel to Cuba.

Cuba is a land of rich history and culture. There was a time when Cuba was a vacation hot spot and resorts lined the coast. There is more to the country than Communism or Castro. Stepping into Cuba is like stepping back into time which you will notice when you see the cars and vehicles from the 1950s, since there have been restrictions on who can export products into the country. The country has managed to survive by being clever, such as when the auto mechanics learned to create their own parts or figured out how to make the parts from 50 year old cars last longer.

Of course, there are still resorts in Cuba. They are luxurious and beautiful and they have wonderful beaches. The water in some areas is as warm and clear as any Caribbean destination.

At the same time, the country is still ruled by a regime that does not believe in the same freedoms as the US. Do not fool yourself about how much things have changed and think that Cuba is just like it is here America. Things may slowly be changing, but they have not changed so much that you would mistake yourself as being in Florida rather than a place where the government greatly limits what their residents can and cannot do.

There are still serious travel restrictions in place. If you decide you want to visit Cuba, and you go online, you might find yourself visiting some travel agencies that claim that they can provide you with that vacation you have always wanted. They may even appear to have a partnership with a tour operator with all of the legitimacy necessary to provide travel to Cuba. You may be tempted to contact them and to sign up for that trip. That's fine; there are a handful of tour operators who can help you. But, that's the key point to remember. There are only a few, and is the one you are looking at one of them?

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are considering going to Cuba and are tempted by one of the deals you see offering travel there:

● The US Department of Treasury has a list of licensed travel service providers (TSP) to Cuba. A licensed TSP is legally allowed to provide travel services to licensed travelers, and to collect money from these travelers for the travel arrangements.

Only those travel agencies and tour operators listed as TSPs are legally allowed to provide these services.

● Any unlicensed travel agent or tour operator that promotes Cuba travel services, makes travel arrangements, or collects funds for travel to Cuba from Americans is in violation of Federal law and is subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.

● For further information, visit read up on the Treasury Department's documentation.

Be careful who you contact. You can visit as long as you have a legally defined reason. For example, you can visit for humanitarian reasons, such as delivering food and supplies to local churches and charity organizations. If you are a journalist, you can visit Cuba and possibly have even greater access to the resorts and hotels.

What you cannot do is go to Mexico or Canada and book a trip unless you are a legal resident of either of those countries. If you are a resident of the United States, you cannot simply go to another country and book a tip. If you are looking at a tour operator that is suggesting that this is a loophole, do not waste your money.

What happens if you book a Cuba vacation and then find out that the tour operator or the travel agency was not licensed? You could find yourself in trouble as well as out of a lot of cash.

Make sure you do your due diligence. Make sure that the tour operator you are working with is on the list from the US Treasury Department. If you do your homework and work carefully within the restrictions, you could potentially visit the land of Cuba. If you aren't careful, however, you could end up being visited by Uncle Sam and out a lot of money.