Americans on People to People group trips in Cuba, can they wander on their own?

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the September 2015 issue.
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Built in modernist style in Havana in 1953, this building served as the US Embassy until the US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. Swiss diplomats occupied it until the US Interests Section moved in in 1977. It became the US Embassy again on July 20, 2015. US National Archives photo

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 475th issue of your foreign travel magazine, the one written largely by its subscribers, people who travel for fun!

I’m writing mainly on one subject this month, so I’ll get right to it.


A minor alteration made recently in one of the US regulations for Americans visiting Cuba has left some travelers with the impression that they are allowed a certain freedom of independent movement while in Cuba. But any US citizen who visits that Caribbean nation under the umbrella of a People to People program and expects to wander about without tour-operator supervision would not be following regulations as they are currently written.

Americans wishing to go to Cuba must qualify to do so under one of the categories of “general” or “specific” licenses (granted for family visits, humanitarian activities, educational activities, etc.), and each person must be able to provide evidence of his reason for going to Cuba. “Tourism” is not a permitted reason.

Since early 2011, when the US government made it possible for more categories of US citizens to visit Cuba, most American travelers have been visiting under “specific licenses” on “People to People” educational group trips. On each of these trips, group members are supervised and are expected to strictly adhere to a fully scheduled itinerary of educational activities.

As announced on Jan. 14, 2015, tour companies and organizations operating People to People programs no longer need to apply to the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for specific licenses, and travelers now can go with groups that are operating under general licenses. However, participants still must abide by all of the outlined rules.

In the Travelers’ Intercom section in this issue (page 12), ITN subscriber Tony Leisner has written about having booked a cruise to Cuba with Cuba Cruise, which has an office in Canada and now is managed by Celestyal Cruises (based in Piraeus, Greece; call, toll-free in the US and Canada, 877/337-4665,

Mr. Leisner described the paperwork he needed to fill out and mentioned that, as an American citizen, he was informed he had to complete a form in order to travel as a People to People participant under the general license of, in this case, the Fund for Reconciliation & Development, or FFRD (, an organization based in the US. He also had to make a contribution to FFRD.

It is Mr. Leisner’s apparent belief that traveling under the general license will allow him to “wander” on his own in Cuba, away from any group. But just how much leeway will he be allowed?

To find out, ITN emailed FFRD and asked a number of questions. Its director, John McAuliff, graciously offered his time and provided candid answers. Here is much of that exchange.


Q: Americans signing up for the People to People trips that Cuba Cruise is running are directed to the FFRD website, where it states, “Completion of this form… is required for everyone traveling to Cuba under our general license.” Until recently, People to People trips have been operated under specific licenses. What is different about operating the program under a general license?

A: As an organization with a long history of organizing People to People trips under a specific license, FFRD now has, by right, a general license. While the general license “belongs to” the group that utilizes it for travelers who are going to Cuba on its appropriate program, there is no actual license to present. A general license is a concept, not a document.

By definition, a specific license is something that has to be applied for; that is what was required for People to People travel before January 2015. OFAC could refuse to renew a specific license as a means of compelling conformity.

However, OFAC neither issues nor renews general licenses, so it has no administrative or bureaucratic means of enforcement. And since a group under a general license never has to report on its use or show evidence of activities to OFAC unless OFAC takes legal action after the fact to demand it, OFAC’s means of enforcement [against the license holder — Editor] is a mystery.

All of the [US tour] groups that had specific licenses for People to People trips now have general licenses.

What OFAC did was, in part, a good thing. It made it easier for any kind of organization involved with international exchanges to carry out People to People programs, each organization following its own judgment of what that consists of within OFAC’s parameters. No more time-consuming, expensive applications and reports, and no more opportunity for arbitrary or politicized decisions. 


Q: What paperwork do Americans need to carry with them on the trip to Cuba with Cuba Cruise?

A: Regardless of nationality (unless born in Cuba), most people who travel to Cuba receive tourist cards from the plane or ship on which they travel, unless they are going to Cuba for a Cuban-designated official purpose (e.g., journalism, research, cultural performance). For most people, there is no application required; the traveler just fills out the two sides of the tourist card received from the carrier, and one half is collected on arrival, the other half on departure.

In addition, FFRD issues letters to Americans saying they are traveling within a program we sponsor under our general license. It is not clear that a letter is required, but we issue them to travelers to provide a comfort level.

The letter FFRD issues to each traveler may be required to buy a ticket on a charter flight from the US to Cuba. However, some charter companies do not require a letter and just ask each traveler to check off a box confirming that they are traveling under a group People to People license.

US Immigration and Customs may ask a traveler for the letter upon his return to the US. Although that does not happen often, both my sons, ages 19 and 22, received unusual scrutiny when they returned on their own in March from a Cuba Cruise trip. They were glad to each have a letter to show Immigration and Customs staff, who did not have much of a clue about the new regulations because my sons had returned through less-common airports.

Also, it does not matter whether the traveler is returning from Cuba directly or via a third country. The same regulations apply, and he can be asked upon reentry to the US what countries he has visited. At large airports with automated entry processing, travelers are not asked what countries they have visited, although Immigration or Customs officers can ask personally.


Q: Are travelers on People to People trips aboard a Cuba Cruise sailing legally free to wander within Cuba as individuals, unchaperoned?

A: According to the US Department of the Treasury, everyone traveling under a group general license is required by OFAC to follow the program of the group. 

That means that for People to People travel authorized by OFAC, an “employee, aid consultant or agent of the sponsoring organization must accompany each group [that is under US jurisdiction — Editor] traveling to Cuba to ensure a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities. . . .” (Refer to the DOT’s “Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba,” as posted May 5, 2015, and available at

Under the regulations, Celestyal Cruises is adhering to current OFAC requirements on their Cuba Cruise trips. All its US passengers will be required to purchase a full-time People to People program that will be carried out under FFRD’s general license.

The agent or minder, required by OFAC, will be on the ship and will be responsible for two to three hundred Americans but cannot accompany every tour bus. (A bilingual Cuban guide is on every bus.)

If an American passenger chooses not to go on the People to People program he or she has already purchased, this will not be activity authorized under our general license.

In the two years since Cuba Cruise trips began, there have been Americans who did not participate in the scheduled group programs required for US travelers who go onshore. Of those, most probably went on the guided Cuba Cruise bus excursions normally designed for Canadians and Europeans. A few wandered on their own. Either way, their travel was not legal under US rules. 

The reality is that large numbers of Americans are simply going, either via third countries or on charter flights, honestly or disingenuously misinterpreting the rules. When I was in Havana in June, I chanced upon three people who thought their trips were legal because they truly were educational. They did not know about the requirement to travel with a licensed group.

Q: What is the purpose of the $95 contribution that travelers each make to FFRD?

A. It is an affiliation contribution. We don’t have members, but we do want people to understand that they are taking on a particular responsibility if they travel to Cuba under our license, and the donation is one way of making that real as well as compensating FFRD for the time and administrative work involved.

The contribution supports our work toward full normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, including the end of all travel restrictions.

Q. Mr. Leisner mentioned in his letter that he needed to buy health insurance, yet American insurance companies were not able to tell him whether or not they were capable of paying Cuban health providers. What can you tell us about this?

A. The health insurance issue is unclear, but it seems that US insurers can now, at least, reimburse for care required during general-license travel. 

The problem could be that a US insurance company may not have the means, or knowledge, of how to directly pay a Cuban provider, and Cuban providers do not have any reason to be confident that they will be paid. 

Cuba requires American travelers to buy insurance that can cover them in Cuba, since Americans haven’t been able to pay with credit cards and did not always have sufficient cash. (In theory, US credit cards are now legally OK, but the infrastructure for their use does not yet exist.)

Some Americans have mistakenly assumed that Cuba’s free medical care also covers foreigners as it covers Cuban citizens and long-term residents.


I want to thank Mr. McAuliff for providing the above information.

To reiterate, under US regulations, most US citizens wishing to visit Cuba are required to do so in guided groups licensed under the People to People program. The only Americans who can travel independently in Cuba are those who qualify for a general or specific license for some other reason (such as those engaging in approved business activities or those of Cuban heritage visiting relatives), while any other US citizen who chooses to travel in Cuba independently is breaking the law and is subject to punishment. 

Under current regulation, punishment can include a fine of up to $7,500, if enforced; however, no individual travelers have been fined since the last year of the George W. Bush administration.

It is important to be informed when planning to travel to Cuba.

Incidentally, FFRD’s John McAuliff maintains a blog with his comments and opinions on issues regarding Cuba: http://cubapeopleto

Note: For the record, in my March 2015 column, I mistakenly wrote that, prior to January 14, 2015, participants in People to People tours had to apply for specific licenses individually. In fact, they traveled under the license held by the tour company or organization.


Now back to business. 

I want to thank all of you who take the time to point out errors you find in ITN. Here are CORRECTIONS to note regarding the August 2015 issue:

• On the “outside front wrap” and on the Contents page, the description of the Antarctica article should have said “Antarctic Circle crossing,” of course, not “Arctic Circle crossing.” (No more late nights for the editorial staff!)

• Steve Goch of Santa Paula, California, wrote, “I just received the latest issue of ITN and devoured it as usual. In the Geografile item on page 48, I found a one-word omission that changes the whole character. It should have said, “Edinburgh CASTLE is built on the core of an extinct volcano.”

• Cruciverbalist Meg Quinn of Los Angeles, California, wrote, “The crossword has a clue for 20 across, ‘Relating to an ancient South American people.’ I ran through every ancient tribe and civilization I could think of. Since I have been to well over 100 countries and most of the South American ones, that was a long list. Then I found that the answer was ‘Aztecan.’ Since when did Mexico move to South America?”


Wanda Walker of Palo Alto, California, has an information request for subscribers: “My husband and I seem to be going on longer and longer trips. The planned one next year will be a 2-month cruise around Australia and New Zealand. I would like readers to tell us what resources they’ve used to find a reliable person to come into their homes a couple of times a week to pick up mail and do some light watering. We don’t need a full-time house sitter. Asking around has found us no one.”

If you have an answer, the subject is Home Checker. Email or write to ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Answers will be sent to Wanda and also printed in ITN.


Shirley Hartung of Napa, California, wrote, “I want to thank you all for the August 2015 issue, which included a very descriptive and extremely interesting article by Jo Ann Mayer about a self-drive tour of Croatia. It was a perfect ‘read’ on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee. I had to cancel a trip there two years ago, but now I can see it’s an absolute MUST!”


Amy Romano of Syosset, New York, wrote, “As a subscriber for many years, I often mention your traveler-to-traveler magazine to people who share a love of travel and would benefit from the wealth of valuable and interesting information published in it. 

“At a 4th of July celebration, I spoke about ITN to a couple who travel extensively, and they were excited to hear that I could have a sample copy sent to them. Here is their address. Thank you for the great work you do on my favorite publication!”

Thanks for spreading the word, Amy. 

For the record, we’ll send a copy of the next-printed issue to anyone upon request, and we do not share or sell people’s addresses to other firms. ITN is all benefit and no risk.