Tag Archives: Cuba

US Tour Operators and Educational Travel Organizations Urge State Department to Lift Punitive Travel Advisory Against Cuba

John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, fields questions from interested travelers at the Cuba-US People to People Partnership booth at the New York Times Travel Show. © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 1, 2018 — A group of 28 leading U.S. tour operators and organizations specializing in educational travel and exchanges with Cuba is calling on the U.S. State Department to re-staff its Embassy in Havana and change Cuba’s travel advisory from a Level 3 (“reconsider travel”) to at least a less intimidating Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”). The request comes on the eve of the State Department’s decision about whether or not to return the U.S. diplomats to the Embassy, expected to be announced on March 4.

(The US State Department said it would not restore the diplomats.)

Beginning in late September 2017, after reports that 24 U.S. Embassy employees in Havana had suffered unexplained health ailments, the Trump Administration withdrew 60 percent of its Embassy staff from Havana, issued a Travel Warning urging Americans not travel to Cuba, and expelled 15 diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington, D.C. In January 2018, the State Department issued a new global travel advisory system, which ranks Cuba as Level 3.

“A Level 3 rating is not justified for Cuba since there are no confirmed causes of private citizens or travelers contracting symptoms similar to the diplomats,” says Andrea Holbrook, President and CEO of Holbrook Travel, one of the companies that signed the petition. (The list of signatories is provided below). “This inappropriate travel warning has caused fear and confusion and has sharply reduced the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba,” Holbrook adds. “It has also affected travel businesses in the States and in Cuba, including those small businesses, like B&Bs and home restaurants, which depend so heavily on American tourists.”

survey of 42 tour operators and educational travel organizations conducted in late January 2018 by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) found that not one of their travelers reported suffering from health issues similar to those of the Embassy employees. Collectively, those surveyed sent more than 42,000 U.S. travelers to Cuba in 2016 and 2017. In addition, there have been no confirmed cases of similar illness among the estimated 700,000 private U.S. citizens who visited the island nation in 2017.

A lengthy ProPublica article, published February 14, 2018, provides the first detailed chronology of the diplomats’ afflictions and the subsequent official — but, to date, inconclusive — investigations by the United States, Cuba, and Canada, and makes clear that the general public is not threatened. In fact, in January 2018, Cuba was voted the safest place to travel at the International Travel Fair in Madrid.

During a meeting on January 12 with State Department officials, a group of American tour operators, travel associations, and Cuba experts were told that a Level 3 rating is automatically triggered by a “drawdown” of U.S. Embassy personnel as a result of the “No Double Standard” policy articulated in the Foreign Affairs Manual.

According to the State Department, this policy originated after the terrorist bombing of a passenger airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, in the interest of sharing information publicly about potential threats against U.S. citizens. That policy, however, also states it is “not intended to prevent the limited distribution of information about threats to specific U.S. citizens/nationals or U.S. organizations.”

“The ‘No Double Standard’ policy leaves the option for the State Department to report threats only to those parties that might be affected by similar incidents,” says Kate Simpson, President of Academic Travel Abroad, Inc, a Washington, D.C.-based educational travel company. “So why was this more limited approach not employed in the case of Cuba, given that the affected group consists only of diplomats, many of whom are known to be intelligence officers and their families?”

Simpson adds, “The fallout from the State Department’s actions has negatively impacted not only U.S. companies and institutions sending travelers to Cuba for educational purposes, but the lack of Embassy staff in Havana has also made it extremely difficult for Cuban citizens to attain visas for visits to the United States.”

On March 4, the State Department faces a mandatory deadline requiring that, six months after an Embassy drawdown, staff must either be reassigned or sent back to their original post. The draw down in Havana began in early September 2017 as Hurricane Irma hit the island and was increased to 60 percent of staff later in the month, in the wake of media revelations about afflictions to the two dozen U.S. diplomats and a handful of staff in the Canadian Embassy. Canada has launched an investigation but has not downsized its Embassy or issued any travel warning to its citizens.

The 28 tour operators and organizations specializing in educational travel to Cuba are calling for the State Department to return more consular officers to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, President of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. foreign-service officers, and some diplomats who were interviewed for the ProPublica article indicated that this is also their wish — to return U.S. diplomats to Cuba. This would, the group hopes, eliminate the trigger that has categorized the country as a Level 3.

The group further questions how Cuba can be rated as a Level 3 while countries with known security risks — such as Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Mexico, and Ethiopia — are rated as Level 2. In addition, the State Department advisories for some countries include alerts pertaining to particularly dangerous parts of their countries. Mexico, for instance, while rated Level 2 overall, is given ratings of Levels 3 and 4 (“do not travel”) for certain states.

“While the new travel advisory system is a welcome improvement, in terms of clarity and organization,” says Ms. Simpson, “it is disappointing to have the Cuba rating starkly reveal political bias, undermining the credibility of the State Department’s consular services.”

A more acceptable alternative, Simpson and the other signers suggest, would be to rate Cuba at least Level 2 overall and designate the parts of Havana where the health incidents took place as Level 3. “Until it’s discovered what caused these ailments, a Level 2 rating, at least, would more accurately reflect the situation in Cuba,” explains Ms. Holbrook. “And it would help encourage those considering traveling to Cuba to do so.”

To read the full petition, click here. The list of tour operators and educational travel organizations who have signed the petition are:


Johann Besserer, Executive Director, Intercultural Outreach Initiative

Reid Callanan, Director, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops

Karin Eckhard, CEO & Co-founder, Espíritu Travel, LLC

Michael Eizenberg, President, Educational Travel Alliance

Malia Everette, CEO, AltruVistas

Michele Gran. Co-founder and Senior Vice President, Global Volunteers

Bob Guild, Co-coordinator, Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel (RESPECT)

Kendra Guild, Director, Marazul Charters, Inc.

John Haffner, President, Cuba Trade and Travel

Marcel Hatch, President,Cuba Explorer Tours

Richard Hobbs, Esq., Executive Director, Human Agenda

Andrea Holbrook, President and CEO, Holbrook Travel, Inc.

Martha Honey, Ph.D., Cofounder & Executive Director, Center for Responsible Travel (CREST)

Adriana Isaza-Mohring, Founder, Elite Tennis Travel

Tor D. Jensen, President, Jensen World Travel, Ltd.

Gabrielle Jorgensen, Director of Public Policy, Engage Cuba

Collin Laverty, President, Cuba Educational Travel

Lee Marona & Aja C. Napolis, President & Administrative Coordinator, Vaya Sojourns, Inc.

John McAuliff, Executive Director & Founder, The Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Janet Moore, President, Distant Horizons

Tom Popper, President, insightCuba

Bill Robison, Director of Expedition Development, Lindblad Expeditions

Melisa Riviere, Ph.D., President, Son Dos Alas: Cultural and Educational Travel

Peter Sanchez, CEO, Cuba Tours and Travel

Kate Simpson, President, Academic Travel Abroad, Inc.

Mark J. Spalding, President, The Ocean Foundation

Ned Sublette, Founder & President, Postmambo Studies

Kristen Tripp, Program Director – Cuba, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures

The Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) is a policy-oriented research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of responsible tourism. CREST assists governments, policy makers, tourism businesses, nonprofit organizations, and international agencies with finding solutions to critical issues confronting tourism, the world’s largest service industry.

See also:

New York Times Travel Show: Despite Trump Policy, Americans CAN Travel to Cuba!

For more travel features, visit:









‘Like’ us on facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Twitter: @TravelFeatures

Natural Habitat Adventures Unveils “Undiscovered Cuba” Showcasing Culture, Nature, Local Contacts

Natural Habitat Adventures' 12-day "Undiscovered Cuba" explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems and facilitates people-to-people contacts.
Natural Habitat Adventures’ 12-day “Undiscovered Cuba” explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems and facilitates people-to-people contacts.

Natural Habitat Adventures, a premier ecotourism company, has unveiled a new “Undiscovered Cuba” 12-day itinerary that explores Cuba’s intriguing culture and stunning tropical ecosystems on an educational exchange that promotes people-to-people contacts designed to provide a human perspective of this captivating Caribbean island nation that has long been inaccessible to American travelers.

Travelers will experience the vibrant cultural centers of Havana and Trinidad as well as virtually unknown national parks, rare botanical gardens, lush tropical ecosystems and fabulous birdlife, and have opportunities to interact with Cuban scientists, naturalists, park managers, academics, organic farmers, community activists, artists, business owners and others eager to share their stories.

“This is a rare opportunity to embrace the daily lives of citizens here. Cuba has been off-limits to American tourists for decades. We are among a select few companies to secure a special U.S. government permit through the newly established People-to-People program, allowing us to offer this exclusive travel opportunity to our privileged guests,” said Ben Bressler, Natural Habitat’s founder and president.

2015 departures, each for a maximum of 15 guests, are: Feb. 10, Feb. 27, and Apr. 18. The per-person double occupancy rate is $7,695, based on a group size of 10 or more. Both international and internal flight costs are in addition to the trip fee. Internal air is $550 (subject to change). Nat Hab books the international flight from Miami to Cienfuegos, Cuba, and the return from Havana to Miami. These flights are organized through a licensed charter company authorized to provide direct flights to Cuba. (See http://www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba)

In addition to Cuban culture and history, the trip also showcases Cuba’s natural resources and diversity. Highlights include World Heritage Sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and hosted visits to organic farms and community-run ecotourism projects, such as:

Zapata National Park. Situated on Cuba’s southern coast, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve covers 1.5 million acres harboring some 1,000 plant species, of which 130 are endemic to Cuba, and showcasing a great diversity of habitats such as grasslands, mangroves, varied types of forest, coastal lagoons and coral reefs. “As far as we know, we are the only current People-to-People tour operator including it in their itinerary,” said Bressler.

Viñales National Park & the Viñales Valley embrace dramatic 250-million-year-old loaf-shaped limestone mountains laced with caves. These karst formations have been worn away by hundreds of years of erosion, becoming small islands that are self-contained ecosystems. The trip visits Cuevo del Indio (Cave of the Indians), the largest system of underground caves in Latin America.

Las Terrazas is an ecotourism center in which a sustainable rural economy has been developed based on the use of local natural resources and a strong focus on public environmental education.

“Accommodations are always the best available and extend an understanding of culture and history through their locations.”

The Grand Hotel Trinidad transports guests to the elegance of 16th-century Cuba under Spanish influence, with gracious archways and wrought-iron balconies. The colonial-style Hotel La Ermita offers magnificent views of the Viñales Valley, and in the heart of Havana the luxurious Parque Central is a mix of colonial and modern elements. Sunswept Playa Larga Beach on the southern coast along the Bay of Pigs is home to the Hotel Playa Larga, which offers basic accommodations with easy access to Zapata National Park.

Participants meet in Miami for an orientation and an overnight at Sofitel Miami Hotel. A chartered flight the next day makes the short hop to Cienfuegos where the group is joined by its local Cuban guide. The program includes a myriad of planned yet unscripted people-to-people exchanges enhanced by an exclusive immersion into Cuba’s rarely visited natural world.  Spend the first afternoon in Cienfuegos, which is recognized as an outstanding early example of urban planning in Latin America. At the Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, enjoy identifying tropical flora and fauna accompanied by botanist Roger Pazos.

Driving on to Trinidad, there will be opportunities to meet the local people through music and the arts, including dining at one the city’s best private restaurants where guests chat with owner Lazaro Orellana who talks about operating a small private business in Cuba. There’s a visit to a community library where the director discusses how books are selected and the role of government censorship, a invitation to a traditional pig roast, and a visit to a late 18th-century plantation house, the Trinidadian residence of Julio and Rosa Munoz (Julio is a photographer, business owner and esteemed horse trainer).

On ensuing days the route moves west to the Zapata Peninsula where there will be ample opportunities to discover the rich endemic plant and bird life – look for the Fernandina’s flicker, one of the rarest woodpeckers in the world. Cruise down the Rio Hatiguanico hoping to sight rarely seen crocodiles.

En route to Viñales, the group stops at Las Terrazas and lunches with restaurant owner Tito Ramos who explains the business opportunities of private restaurants called paladares.

Explore Viñales National Park accompanied by Emma Palacios Lemagne, who has worked in the park for 25+ years. She is the leading gastropoda biologist and conservationist in Cuba.

Four full days in Cuba’s vibrant capital of Havana conclude the journey, with highlights including a traditional Cuban lunch at the Hotel Nacional, a stroll through Old Havana with a prominent architectural historian and an invitation to the National Theater to watch a dance class at the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba.

For the complete itinerary see: http://www.nathab.com/central-america/undiscovered-cuba/itinerary/

Natural Habitat Adventures has been a world leader in responsible adventure travel and nature-based ecotourism since 1985. Inspired and created from years of scouring the planet for the singular and extraordinary, Nat Hab’s trips appeal to travelers who seek more than the standard, done-before tour commonly found in today’s marketplace.  Itineraries are artfully crafted, one-of-a-kind experiences that are far from “typical.” Natural Habitat Adventures enjoys the reputation for employing some of the finest naturalist expedition leaders. Conservation is at the forefront of everything the company does, and its philosophy about environmentally responsible travel is simple: tourism must work with and benefit local communities, which will in turn find value in protecting precious natural resources. NHA is the travel partner of the World Wildlife Fund, sharing a commitment to travel as a means of helping to protect the planet’s wondrous natural places.

For trip information, descriptive itineraries, date availability and reservations call 800-543-8917 or visit www.nathab.com.


For more travel features, visit:





‘Like’ us on facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Twitter: @TravelFeatures

New: Moral Compass: Great Places to Go Where the Going Does Good


Check out our newest travel site for special deals, insiders’ tips at tidbitts.com: www.tidbitts.com/karen-rubin/where-in-the-world