How To Make Havana Dreams Happen

With a little homework, your vacation can be perfectly legal

Among the Americans landing at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana every day, the tension is as thick as a cloud of cigar smoke. Fingering their U.S. passports as they stand in the Cuban immigration line, they talk of how to avoid getting caught by U.S. Customs on their return. "If you put $5 in your passport, they won't stamp it," says a nervous tourist from San Francisco who's debating how to avoid incontrovertible proof of his trip. "Well, I heard that if you try to bribe them, they will stamp it," replies someone in the next line. An experienced New Yorker chimes in: "I got stamped last time and it doesn't even say `Cuba' on it, so who cares?"

With tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans venturing to Cuba each year, it's a common scene. The success of films such as The Buena Vista Social Club and the popularity of salsa in the U.S. have increased the cachet of going to Havana--and the use of somewhat cloak-and-dagger means to do it. "There's probably a certain thrill to the illegality," observes Joseph Robison, a 35-year-old Canadian who recently went scuba diving in Cuba with Americans.

What those uneasy American visitors don't know, however, is that many could be there legally--without an official piece of paper saying so. Technically, travel to Cuba isn't illegal; it's just that U.S. Treasury regulations bar Americans from spending money, in any kind of currency, in the country. Violators risk a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. But these same rules (posted at say that "full-time professionals whose travel is directly related to professional research" can go without special permission. If they're questioned by U.S. Customs agents, they can simply say they were legally entitled to go.

Previously, Americans who fell into the professional category had to apply for a license. But Treasury ended that requirement last May, after the office tasked with giving licenses was deluged with requests. Who can go now without special permission? Apart from the obvious categories of journalist and academic, all kinds of people qualify: doctors who want to tour medical clinics, architects who want to view historic sites, and, perhaps, musicians who want to observe Afro-Caribbean rhythms in action. Washington requires only that the trip "comprises a full work schedule" and that the result "has a substantial likelihood of public dissemination."

So does posting one's observations of Cuba to an online news group or chat room meet that requirement? How about playing a new tune picked up in Havana to a packed house? The regulations' limits have yet to be tested, and Treasury officials did not respond to questions from BUSINESS WEEK about them. So far, though, no one can cite a case of an American ever being prosecuted simply for being a tourist in Cuba.

FINDING RELIGION. For qualified travelers, Marazul Tours in Weehawken, N.J. (800 223-5334), flies a round-trip charter from New York to Havana for $649 every Friday. If you're worried about being qualified on your own, you can take a study tour from an organization whose mission is to promote awareness about Cuba. Several offer thematic trips on a monthly or biweekly basis. While most trips also are restricted to "full-time professionals," the Center for Cuban Studies in New York ( or 212 242-0559) offers trips for nonprofessionals as well: a 10-day excursion celebrating "Passover in Cuba," or any religious holiday. "Anyone can qualify for a religious trip," which has its own separate category of permission, says Executive Director Sandra Levinson.

The hundreds of other Americans arriving daily in Havana go via a foreign country, such as Mexico or Canada. They simply make an international call to the reservation office of a foreign carrier that flies to Havana and give a credit-card number. The ticket--and a $15 "tourist card," the equivalent of a visa--will be waiting for them in Cancun, Nassau, Toronto, or any other foreign city with Havana flights. Some travel agencies, such as Scubacan International (, claim that Americans, by paying the full costs of the trip--including hotel and meals--to its Toronto headquarters, can skirt the illegality of spending money in Cuba.

INVITING DANCES. So is the reward worth the risk? Havana certainly is a vibrant capital of music, sex, and sun. The travel writer Pico Iyer writes that "the whole island has the ramshackle glamor of an abandoned stage set" and that every night is a "round-the-clock turmoil of carnival." Salsa bands play into the wee hours at hot spots Cafe Cantante and the Casa de la Musica. And for those who don't want to pay the $10-$20 cover charges, impromptu concerts spring up in the bars and open cafes of Old Havana. Just about every dance invitation comes with a proposition--for both men and women.

Relaxing it isn't. A stay in the Hotel Inglaterra, one of Havana's oldest and most elegant, comes replete with salsa rhythms from bands on the street below and on the rooftop above. It's hard to resist joining the revelry.

Apart from the music, Cuba's most inviting feature is its beaches. The Santa Maria del Mar, a 30-minute, $10 taxi ride east of Havana, is just about every knowledgeable traveler's daytime destination. Here, the water is Chagall-blue, the fresh fish is decent, and the beer is plentiful. Those with more time often take a road trip. Rex Rent-A-Car (011 537 339-160) has Audis for $60-$80 per day. Five hours southeast of Havana is the city of Trinidad, whose colonial architecture UNESCO has declared a World Heritage Site.

But of course, all those professionals doing research had better forget the fun. Cuba has 688 health clinics, 1,136 nursery schools, 47 institutions of higher education, and four UNESCO-approved biosphere reserves. Researching all that could take many trips to Cuba indeed.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.