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As US-Cuba Travel Nears, Excitement Grows

U.S. and Cuban flags hang on a wall at the U.S pavilion during the Havana International Fair (FIHAV), Havana, Cuba, Nov. 2, 2015.

President Barack Obama plans to visit Cuba next month, the first American president to visit the island nation in nearly 90 years.

The word from the White House follows the formal agreement earlier this week to resume regularly scheduled commercial air travel between Cuba and the United States for the first time in more than 50 years. That is expected to happen within the next six months. Details with airlines have to be worked out first.

Meanwhile, Americans are traveling to Cuba, and have been for several years. There are restrictions on travel, some will be lifted, but travel experts say the restrictions are workable.

One of the key categories for traveling to Cuba is for educational purposes, for further understanding of the Cuban people and Cuban history.

During both the Clinton and Obama administrations a non-profit group called Road Scholar has been taking Americans to Cuba on a regular basis. It is basically a comprehensive academic experience for older people, kind of what a college year abroad does for younger people.

Tourists enjoy a ride in vintage cars in old Havana, Cuba, Jan. 17, 2016.
Tourists enjoy a ride in vintage cars in old Havana, Cuba, Jan. 17, 2016.

Not like most other places

Jim Moses, the president and CEO of Road Scholar, says Cuba isn't like most tourist destinations.

“I think it's another step forward in normalizing relations,” said Moses. He added, “but I’m curious to know what people think is going to happen when they get on a flight and arrive in Cuba, because an individual just walking around Cuba is not that easy, not that there’s any danger in walking around, but I mean there’s really limited infrastructure,” he says.

Moses adds the money issue can be a problem.

“It’s not like you can walk into a store and use your credit card or bank card. Technically it doesn’t exist yet. It’s pretty much a cash economy. I think that if Americans are travelling to Cuba and are fully informed and have advice on the way, it might work, it’s just not that simple,” Moses says.

There is another issue people have to be concerned about. Moses says, “in addition to taking cash, you have to make sure you have a place to stay because the hotel infrastructure is extremely limited. I know there are bed and breakfasts springing up across the country, but there’s high demand and low inventory.”

FILE - A tourist looks out from his hotel room's balcony in Havana, Cuba.
FILE - A tourist looks out from his hotel room's balcony in Havana, Cuba.

Businesses upbeat

Moses’ company, based in Boston, Massachusetts, in the northeastern United States, is in the seventh year of programming in Cuba during the Obama administration, and has its own contacts, contracts and favorite hotels, bus companies and restaurants.

He brings leading Cuban diplomats, architects, and other professionals and workers together with his tour groups so they can share insights and backgrounds. As he put it, “sort of pulling the curtain aside and taking you behind the scenes of life in Cuba.”

His company reports the number of inquiries on travel to Cuba has increased since the Obama administration opened normalization talks with the Castro government. He caters to the tourist who is looking for a unique academic experience, who wants to learn about Cuba, and wants to see the country before it changes, before the influx of tourists.

In general, most observers believe that American corporations see massive opportunity in Cuba, and American businesses will be looking to see how they can take advantage of that when the time is right.

According to Moses, who says he personally knows Cuba very well, “there’s so much opportunity, the country is so ripe for development in so many different ways. I think there’s going to be a lot of interest. I think there’s already a lot of interest."