When Boston-based travel company Road Scholar last month announced with fanfare that it would launch people-to-people trips to Cuba that would transport U.S. citizens there by cruise ship, I was skeptical.

“This isn’t going to end well,” I mused.

Sure enough, last week the not-for-profit organization hastily canceled its three proposed cruises after it received an amended copy of its people-to-people license from the U.S. Treasury Department specifically excluding travel to Cuba by cruise ship: “Travel to and from Cuba, whether originating or terminating in the United States or a third country, may not be aboard a vessel.”

On July 18, Yves Marceau, Road Scholar’s director of international programs, stated that it was his understanding that “nothing in the regulations or guidelines” prohibited U.S. participants traveling by ship on a people-to-people educational exchange program in Cuba.

That, I knew, was skating on thin ice.

The trips were arranged through Wellesley, MA-based Educational Travel Alliance Inc., which holds a Travel Service Provider (TSP) license to arrange travel transactions with Cuba. “We worked closely with our TSP and others to develop three new people-to-people educational ocean voyages, and were assured that our itineraries met OFAC guidelines,” Road Scholar spokeswoman Stacie Fasola told CubaNews.

The trips were to originate in Montego Bay, Jamaica. (Typically people-to-people programs depart Miami, and in a few cases from U.S. airports, on chartered planes.)

Cuba Cruise

Marceau announced that Road Scholar’s groups of 24 participants would sail on a 1,000-passenger Canadian vessel, and would maintain their own itinerary while in Cuban ports. (I’m assuming this would be the 960-passenger Louis Cristal, to be operated by Cuba Cruise Inc. The Calgary-based startup company plans to begin cruises next winter, with 15 weekly cruises December through March, calling at Cienfuegos, Punta Francés on Isla de la Juventud, Gibara, and Santiago de Cuba.)

“Ha, someone hasn’t done their due diligence,” I further mused.

Marceau claimed that Road Scholar had “designed all the port programs to be consistent” with strict U.S. Treasury Department regulations for people-to-people travel (legalized by President Obama in January, 2011, these trips are defined exclusively as educational and cultural exchange that precludes recreation and “tourism”), including a visit to an agricultural cooperative and meetings with artists.

Jeff Braunger, program manager for OFAC’s Cuba travel licensing unit, told CubaNews that “transportation [whether by bus, boat or taxi] in Cuba, to the extent that it does not detract from a full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba and does not cause the traveler to exceed the per diem limit, is authorized by the OFAC people-to-people license.”

The operative word here may well be “in.” Not “to.”

Braunger added that cruise ships don’t qualify for P2P trips because “It is beyond the scope of current policy.”

OFAC routinely denies requests for licenses involving travel by sea.

Even an effort in early 2012 by Fort Lauderdale-based Havana Ferry Partners LLC to secure a license to provide ferry service from Florida to Cuba for Cuban-Americans (who can travel freely to Cuba whenever they wish under a ‘general license,’ which does not require written authorization of OFAC) was denied.

What Road Scholar and Educational Travel Alliance overlooked is that PSP licenses provide solely for travel (ie transportation) that is “incident” to engaging in P2P educational exchanges… not cruising aboard the Louis Cristal, with its casino, show lounge, and sundecks and pool.

Safer to stick with a P2P program such as led by myself on behalf of National Geographic Expeditions or MotoDiscovery.



Christopher P Baker


Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and successful travel writers and photographers has been named by National Geographic as one of the world's foremost authorities on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions, Edelwiss Bike Travel, and Jim Cline Photo Tours, among other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.