American citizens may find it difficult to travel to Cuba, but through a cultural exchange program implemented in 2011 the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce is offering its members and local residents the opportunity to visit the island country.
"Without going on a trip like this, with a group like ours, you can't go," Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin said of visiting the island about 90 miles south of Florida.
The Chamber is offering its members and members of the community an opportunity to travel to Cuba May 24 to June 1 through a "people-to-people" cultural exchange program. The program serves to promote cultural experiences throughout the country since Americans are prohibited from visiting Cuba without government permission due to a trade embargo.
McMullin said he learned of possibly visiting Cuba through a government licensed travel agency at a national chambers of commerce meeting last year and immediately followed up on the unique opportunity.
"To be able to offer this trip is a real unique thing that we're able to share," McMullin said, adding that a trip to Cuba has always been on his bucket list.
The Chamber is working with Central Holidays West, a group travel wholesaler, to offer the trip.
Cuba has been a "forbidden fruit" for Americans as a tourist destination, but since travel restrictions were loosened in 2011, the demand has been tremendous, according to Ian Scott, general manager of Central Holidays West.
"Cuba is a destination that holds great interest," Scott said. "It really has become an important part of our programs."
Guests on the trip, which costs $3,499, will be visiting four Cuban cities, including Camaguey, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Havana.
Scott said guests will meet local entrepreneurs, artists, lawyers, and cowboys, among other professions, simply to discuss life in Cuba.
"It's a great opportunity to be able to meet the Cuban individuals and for Cuban individuals to be able to meet U.S. travelers in a relaxed setting," Scott said.
Doug Metz, a Chamber member and owner of a bank consulting company, is one of the 18 guests already confirmed for the trip.
Metz said he has always been intrigued with visiting Cuba in part because it has been off-limits for so long and because it has not been redeveloped.
"It's basically like going back and time," he said, adding that guests will not be seeing any corporate businesses such as McDonald's or Starbucks.
The Chamber last year offered a trip to Italy, but Cuba has gotten a "big response," McMullin said.
With 30 spots open, the Chamber has already filled 18 just one month after announcing the trip.
McMullin said he believes only good things can result from a culturally diverse dialogue and that he is hoping to come back with a "real good sense of Cuban life."
Anyone interested in the trip should contact the Chamber as soon as possible, McMullin said.
He expects the trip to fill quickly.