It's the tail end of our weekend in this tropical communist stronghold, and a minor revolution is brewing.
For the past three days, our band of 13 travelers on an Insight Cuba tour has been shepherded through the decaying capital of America's nearest adversary under a year-old, U.S.-sanctioned "people-to-people" program.
But since Treasury Department rules require mandatory participation in "a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities," it hasn't been a salsa-and-cigar-fueled beach escape. Instead, we've heard lectures at a day care center for seniors, a literacy museum featuring a blackboard with machine gun holes allegedly from the CIA, and a community project aimed at reviving traditional folk culture.
Now, as we once again clamber aboard our state-of-the-art, Chinese-made tour bus (a stark contrast to the three-wheeled rickshaws and Eisenhower-era cars that cruise Havana's crumbling, heartbreakingly beautiful colonial streets), our Cuban guide, José Ramón Rodriguez Sicilia, gives us an unexpected dose of democracy. We could drive 45 minutes to a private home and museum owned by elderly fans of vintage American jazz, or head back to our faded-glory hotel for a nap, a dip in the pool or a cocktail in the same bar once frequented by the likes of Al Capone and Graham Greene.
The hotel wins, but José— concerned about possible repercussions from an unauthorized schedule deviation — persuades us to press on. The mojitos, it seems, will have to wait.
Off-limits to most American vacationers since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, this Caribbean "isla non grata" about 90 miles south of Key West has long drawn sun-starved Canadians and Europeans. Now, tourism both on and off the beach is a key driver of the country's officially socialist but increasingly capitalistic economy.
But "the biggest issue is that Cuba just has too little capacity for the demand right now," notes Cuba expert Christopher Baker, a guidebook author and tour leader.
And as American interest in Cuba escalates — many "people-to-people" tours are sold out or wait-listed through 2012, and a Republican presidential win would likely eliminate them entirely — prices are on the upswing, as well.
According to Baker, the Cuban government just raised its rates for hotels and other tourist services by about 25% for U.S. operators during the upcoming winter season. As a result, he says, many of those 130 tour companies, museums and other organizations — some of which already charge upward of $500 per person, per day — will be forced to scale back their trips.
Adding to the uncertainty: Last month, in response to reports of "abuses" in the programs, the Treasury Department tightened regulations for its "people-to-people" licenses. U.S. companies now must provide a sample itinerary, assign a representative to each tour and explain how the exchanges would "enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities."
But for curious Americans willing to pay a premium and play by the rules, "it's the shortest distance you'll ever travel to enter a completely different world," says Peggy Goldman of "people-to-people" license holder Friendly Planet Travel.
A step back in time