Cuban connections may be opening for U.S. tourists

Cruise: A Canadian company thinks it has a way around restrictions that prohibit Americans from going to the island country.

Strategies

May 21, 2000|By Donald D. Groff | Donald D. Groff,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Americans could find themselves docking in Havana under the plans of a Canadian company that says it will start regular cruises -- geared to U.S. citizens -- between Nassau and the Cuban capital. The first cruise is set for Nov. 16.

The operator, Blyth & Company Travel Ltd. of Toronto, announced last month that it has devised a way for U.S. residents to take the voyage aboard a 440-passenger ship without violating federal regulations.

Since 1963, a Cold War economic embargo of Cuba has banned Americans from freely visiting and spending money in Cuba unless they fall under one of several exceptions. One of those exceptions involves being "hosted" by an educational, professional or charitable program that serves as a middleman.

Sam Blyth, president of Blyth & Co., said U.S. passengers will pay for the trip through "a very large foundation with the goal of promoting peace through people to people contact." That would make the travelers "hosted."

Most U.S. passengers would still be subject to a rule against spending money while in Cuba. Blyth declined to name the organization or the name under which the ship is currently operating in the Mediterranean, citing security concerns in the wake of tensions over the Elian Gonzalez case. But he said those details would be announced in mid-June.

Blyth said the payment program had been developed on advice of Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm with a sanctions policy specialty. However, the Treasury Department did not seem willing to give its blessing to the program. A spokeswoman there would not specifically respond to questions about the Blyth announcement but repeatedly said that nothing had changed in the federal restrictions.

"Americans cannot go to Cuba directly or indirectly without authorization," she said. (Technically, it is the spending of money there that the rules prohibit.)

Despite the embargo, many thousands of Americans have entered Cuba in recent years, usually through third countries.

In April, Cuban Tourism Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz said more than 160,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba last year.

The Canadian ship, to be renamed La Habana, was recently renovated, according to the company, and will have amenities such as fitness programs and facilities, outdoor pool, bars, a casino and Cuban-theme entertainment and education programs. A three-night, four-day package starts at $595, double occupancy, plus port taxes of almost $100.

Guests would depart Nassau on a Thursday, spend the night en route to Cuba, arrive Friday and lodge aboard the boat while in Havana.

A four-night, five-day "Classic Havana and Cuba" trip will also be available, featuring an excursion to the Bay of Pigs and other sites of historical or ecological interest. Airfare to Nassau can be arranged at additional cost.

Blyth also said that his company will take over the operation of an Italian ship, the 550-passenger Valtour Prima, offering seven-day tours of the Caribbean departing from Havana. For details, contact Blyth & Company at 800-387-1387 or go to www.cubacruising.com. A separate site will be set up for the Valtour Prima cruises.

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