CAPITALIZING CUBA

Local company puts together trips to Cuba

2011-09-28T00:00:00Z 2011-09-28T07:55:08Z Local company puts together trips to CubaBy JAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 28, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Now that travel restrictions to Cuba have been relaxed, Billings attorney Bill Cole wants to take his wife, Anne, to the island next year.

After traveling twice to Africa and seeing Thailand, China, Nepal and the Galapagos Islands, Cole knows how quickly elevated tourism can change relatively remote regions.

"Cuba is on the brink, I think, of a great transformation. It would be great to see it before the Castros die and it becomes just another Caribbean island," he said.

A Billings-based travel company, Austin-Lehman Adventures, and National Geographic are two U.S. adventure travel companies now licensed to conduct tours to Cuba. Austin-Lehman has scheduled six trips to Cuba next year.

For years, legal travel from the U.S. to Cuba has been limited to  academics, public performers, athletes, exhibitors and people attending conferences. Journalists also could go, if they are shadowed heavily by Cuban handlers. Rocky Mountain College is leading an academic trip to Cuba in February and March.

But the ordinary tourists had to be creative.

"Americans have always gone to Cuba, just not legally," Austin said. "They went up to Canada or in through Mexico or Costa Rica and the Cubans just didn't stamp their passports."

The danger of traveling illegally was that the U.S. government had five years to find out about the trip and fine the traveler thousands of dollars.

Now that is changing.

"A heady mix of beaches, music, rum and revolution unfurls across the tropical island of Cuba," begins the Frommer's travel book "Cuba Day by Day."

Despite the island's allure, Americans' travel and trade with Cuba has been barred or restricted since former Cuban President Fidel Castro led a revolution in 1959 and established a Communist-ruled country 100 miles from Miami.

Since then, Cuban policy has been a political hot topic, especially after the Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In 1999, travel rules were relaxed by President Bill Clinton, who set up a "people-to-people" program that allowed American tourists, who weren't part of a formal academic program, to study Cuba's culture and history.

But in 2003, President George W. Bush overturned that policy.

Then last January, President Barack Obama restored the program. The U.S. Treasury Department spent months writing the rules. Austin-Lehman submitted its 20-page application in January and received a one-year license early this month.

To get an itinerary approved by the Treasury Department, Austin-Lehman had to team up with Christopher P. Baker, who has written eight travel books. The Billings company has to work with a U.S.-approved travel service provider and also work with one of three Cuban travel companies approved by the Cuban government.

U.S. dollars are highly sought after in Cuba, but travelers on this program have to spend the Cuban pesos and Austin's hands are tied.

"We can't rent a hotel. We can't use our money in Cuba," Austin said.

Baker and Austin had to build a trip around educational tours and set up daily meetings with "real people," non-official Cubans.

"What they don't want is people going under this program and going out to the beach," Austin said. "And the only way we'll get this license renewed is if we follow all the guidelines."

The nine-day trip to Cuba, a quick flight from Miami, is expected to cost about $4,500.

"It's not cheap, but there are so many hoops to go through," Austin said.

If a Republican is elected president next year, these relaxed travel standards to Cuba may be reversed again, Austin said.

Company sales are up 40 percent this year, Austin said, thanks to repeat customers and referrals.

The locally owned company is based in Billings, but only about a dozen clients live in this area.

Being named the world's top tour operator three years in a row by Travel + Leisure has drawn in customers from all over, he said.

Anne Cole's parents lived Cuba in the 1950s before she was born and before Fidel Castro's revolution, and the couple wants to set their watches back half a century.

"To me, Cuba offers the allure of history, adventure and perhaps, most importantly, the unknown," Bill Cole said. "I'd like to see it before 10 cruise ships each holding more people than the town of Laurel start anchoring in Havana harbor every night."

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 406-657-1306.

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