Carroll Chamber of Commerce sponsors trip to Cuba

The Carroll Chamber of Commerce is heading to an increasingly popular tourist destination: Cuba.
Don't call it a vacation though. Since 2011, the United States has loosened its restrictions on traveling to Cuba, allowing cultural exchange tours of the country.
While students, family members, academics and journalists are able to travel to Cuba, the Obama administration also allows specific licenses of educational exchanges to organize "people-to-people programs," according to the White House website.
The Chamber of Commerce is working with Central Holidays West to make the trip in May, Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin said.
"It's very much of a unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance," he said.
The group of about 30 people will be traveling to four towns and staying in three of them, he said. He said the people-to-people tour is designed so Americans can meet Cubans where they live, where they work and where they play.
The trip includes visiting a schoolhouse, meeting a Cuban family, going to the ballet and a tour of a cigar factory.
The response so far as been overwhelming, McMullin said. Within three weeks of booking the trip, just under half of the spots are taken, he said.
To compare, the Chamber of Commerce offered a trip to Italy late last year, and over three months or so, four slots were sold.
The number of foreign tourists traveling to Cuba reached close to 2.9 million in 2012 and is expected to reach 3 million in 2013, according to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.
About 98,050 Americans visited Cuba in 2012, according to Cuban government statistics. In 2011, 73,566 visited the country. According to the report, it's been a steady increase since 2007, which started with about 40,000 American tourists visiting the country.
Travel to Cuba from America has been restricted since Fidel Castro's communist regime took over, which prompted the U.S. to embargo trade in 1962. President Bill Clinton approved people-to-people trips in the 1990s, and President George W. Bush tightened restrictions in the 2000s. Following in Clinton's footsteps, Obama loosened restrictions to allow cultural exchange programs.
Ian Scott, the general manager of Central Holidays West, said the company has been offering tours since early 2013. Scott said she doesn't have an exact number of people-to-people programs they've taken to Cuba, he said there have been many.
"This is not a vacation, it's a people-to-people cultural visit designed to open up the dialogue and create an enjoyable interaction between not only Americans, but Cubans as well," he said.
While the Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring the event, McMullin said anyone can join the tour. He said part of the reason why the tour has sold so quickly is because for many people, it's on their bucket list of places to visit.
"That's on my bucket list, too," the chamber president, who is going on the trip, said.
The trip will be nine days and eight nights, and the $3,499 cost includes air travel from Miami, hotels, day trips and meals.
He said this is the best opportunity to see a country that hasn't been touched by major American influences, like Starbucks. In fact, the closest Starbucks to Cuba is in New Providence.
"Cuba has really stood still in time in so many ways for so many years," he said.