The first group of American tourists traveling legally to Cuba under newly relaxed restrictions has been welcomed with open arms, says the organizer of a cultural exchange trip led by Insight Cuba.
"People-to-people exchanges," a euphemism for tours booked solid with cultural immersion activities, were approved in January, and tour operators have begun taking groups of travelers to the island, which remains closed to solo American travelers. Reuters reports that 30 to 35 groups have already been approved for travel to the island.
In March, the Customs and Border Protection office opened up eight new American airports to charter flights to Cuba, including Chicago O'Hare, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Tampa, Atlanta and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Previously only charter flights were available from Miami, LA and New York.
John McAuliff, head of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, said that roughly 100,000 Americans will be able to visit Cuba this year under the new laws.
Reuters reports that "the first group of travelers have been to orphanages, medical facilities, art museums, music performances and tobacco farms and have walked the streets of Old Havana in a first taste of the forbidden fruit that Cuba has been for five decades under the U.S. trade embargo against the country."
While visitors have been greeted warmly—one calls the trip "marvelous"—tour organizer Tom Popper of Insight Cuba warns a visit isn't necessarily tropical bliss. Even the eased restrictions on travel limit what American visitors can experience. Rules mandate visitors be engaged in "purposeful travel." In other words, says Popper, "No beaches."
Popper told Reuters: "Some people are amazed by what they see and astonished by the people and the culture and everything around them. And some people feel horrible that getting coffee is a struggle and food stuff is hard (to find) and that there's two economies and that a doctor has to drive a taxi to supplement his income."
Huffington Post Associate Blog Editor Hallie Seegal went to Cuba in December. Here are her stunning photos from the trip.