Dispelling Four Misconceptions About Travel to Cuba

Apr 13, 2013 | Updated Jun 13, 2013

You've probably heard the chatter that music superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z recently celebrated their five-year wedding anniversary in Cuba. Their trip reignited questions about whether Americans can travel to Cuba legally. From what I've seen in the media, there are still many misconceptions about Americans traveling to Cuba. So, here are the facts.

It's only legal for Americans to travel to Cuba on licensed trips that involve cultural or educational exchanges with Cubans. These trips are made possible through People-to-People licenses, granted by The U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Only a handful of tour operators (including my company, Friendly Planet Travel), have been granted a coveted People-to-People license.

After some initial false reports, we found out this week that Jay-Z and Beyoncé traveled with a licensed People-to-People tour operator (not my company) and participated in various activities required by the license. For example, the New York Times reported that Beyoncé watched an informal performance by a local dance company, and both stars visited the children's theater group La Colmenita.

The misconceptions I read about Beyoncé and Jay-Z's trip got me thinking about some of the other fallacies I've heard about Cuba since we began offering tours to the country back in 2011. I wanted to clear up a few of them here:

Misconception #1: It's illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba.
The Truth: Americans can legally visit Cuba by traveling with tour providers who have People-to-People licenses, which allow them to interact and exchange ideas with the Cuban people. A typical itinerary is filled with activities that offer a wide range of interactions between Cubans and American tourists. From something as simple as sharing dinner with a Cuban family to attending cultural events, visiting schools, meeting with local artists and sharing an organic lunch at a local community farm, the day is spent meeting, talking and exchanging views. For people who love learning about other cultures, meeting new people and learning how others live, it's a trip made in heaven.

Misconception #2: It's expensive to visit Cuba.
Fact: Travel is always expensive, and Cuba is more expensive than other frequently visited destinations in the Caribbean because of geopolitical issues and bureaucracy. On the other hand, the true value of visiting Cuba, especially at this time, is literally priceless. The opportunity for Americans to engage with the Cuban people hasn't been available since 1960. Since that time, Cubans have stayed true to their heritage, and because of the long embargo, they have had very little resources to change much of their physical surroundings. Consequently, a trip to Cuba will feel like going back in time, with your Father's 1955 Chevy Bel Air plowing the streets as a taxi. More significantly, the experience of visiting Cuba will open you up to a whole new world only 230 miles from Miami International Airport, where people have learned to do more with less -- literally -- and where they have proven that there is rich, rewarding, enchanting life without much material wealth. A legal visit to Cuba is an investment, but after sending over 2,000 people to Cuba on Friendly Planet tours, not one traveler has said it wasn't worth their time or interest. In fact, they've said it's worth every penny.

Misconception #3: Cuba has a limited, but growing tourism infrastructure.
Fact: Cuba's tourism business disappeared when American travelers were embargoed in 1960. In fact, if it weren't for the Canadians and Europeans, who love to holiday on Cuba's magnificent, powdery sand beaches, the industry would be totally dead. Compared to other Caribbean destinations, Cuba's tourism infrastructure is lacking. There aren't enough hotels; sometimes the hot water doesn't get hot; sometimes the water doesn't come out of the spigot at all; occasionally the elevator (if there is one) breaks down, and so on. That doesn't mean there aren't deluxe facilities on the island, but where they exist, they are expensive, even more so for the lack of such facilities. It is important to note though that Cuba's tourism infrastructure is growing. And while a few gorgeous beach resorts, which can be found scattered about the island, are generally not visited by American tourists (sun bathing doesn't qualify as a people to people activity), there are hotels with decent amenities to be found. Cuba's tourism infrastructure may be limited, but it does exist, and you will hardly even have to rough it the way you might in, say, Madagascar! In any event, travelers to Cuba are generally more interested in immersing themselves in Cuban culture and seeing how Cuban people live than they are surrounding themselves in luxury. And the joy of the experience more than compensates for the minor inconveniences that may occur.

Misconception #4: Cubans don't like Americans.
Fact: Cubans and Americans have always held an affinity for one another. Cubans who live in America today have played a pivotal role in American's perception of the island. Likewise, Cubans are students of the American people, separated by only a small body of water. Every Cuban child learns English, starting as early as third grade, and Cubans on the islands are avid consumers of American culture through television, music and even the internet, although access in Cuba is quite a challenge. Our experiences with the people of Cuba have proved that while governments might stand in the way, people will always find a way to relate, communicate, and engage. As a traveler, you only need to walk the streets, wander into a shop or participate in just one people to people activity to discover that Cubans like Americans very much, and Americans cannot help but liking Cubans back.

If you're considering traveling to Cuba like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, put aside any misconceptions you may have about Cuba. I can assure you that while it may not be the most luxurious vacation you'll ever take, it will be one of the most meaningful experiences you can ever hope for.